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Gun sales to people on FBI terrorist watchlist must be blocked, Obama says

An illegal drug addict in the U.S. wouldn't pass a background check to buy a gun, but those on the FBI's terrorist watchlist could get a green light. That's a loophole President Barack Obama and other politicians say needs to close, particularly in light of yet another mass shooting.

After latest mass shooting in U.S., president calls again for gun control reforms

A manager at a gun store in Colorado displays products in 2013. Under current federal law, people on the FBI's terrorist watchlist can walk into a store and buy a gun if they pass a background check. (Ed Andrieski/Associated Press)

The motive isn't yet known for the shooting that killed 14 people in California this week, but like other mass shootings, it has prompted calls from U.S. President Barack Obama and other Democrats for stricter gun control.

It's too easy for people to get guns and simple steps can and should be taken to make it harder, the president said in the Oval Office Thursday morning.

Along with expanded background checks, Obama is calling for another measure: a ban for people on the FBI's consolidated terrorist watchlist from buying guns. Under current law, someone addicted to marijuana can't buy a gun at a federally licenced store, but someone on the watchlist could pass the required background check.

"For those concerned about terrorism, some may be aware that we have a no-fly list where people can't get on planes, but those same people who we don't allow to fly could go into a store right now in the United States and buy a firearm and there is nothing that we can do to stop them," Obama said in a TV interview the day of the shooting in San Bernardino. 

"That's a law that needs to be changed."

U.S. President Barack Obama and other Democrats are calling for stricter gun control after the mass shooting in California this week. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Attention also focused on the terrorist watchlist after the attacks in Paris last month. They prompted Democrats to renew the push for a bill that was introduced in the spring by California Senator Dianne Feinstein, notably with the backing of at least one Republican, Representative Pete King.

It would aim to block those on the watchlist from clearing a background check.

Changing law a 'no-brainer'

"I think this is a no-brainer. If you're too dangerous to board a plane, you're too dangerous to buy a gun," Feinstein said at a recent news conference in Washington.

Her bill has sat idle for months in the Republican-controlled Congress, but now it's getting some attention and Obama, frustrated over inaction on Capitol Hill, is helping to generate it.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid blames Republicans for "kowtowing" to the National Rifle Association and blocking Feinstein's bill from moving forward. It is putting Americans at risk, Reid wrote in a statement.

"By leaving this terrorist loophole open, Republicans are leaving every community in America vulnerable to attacks by terrorists armed with assault rifles and explosives purchased legally, in broad daylight," he said.

But not all Republicans are opposed to changing the law. The frontrunner in the GOP presidential field, Donald Trump, was asked on ABC's Sunday politics show whether people on the watchlist should be allowed to buy a gun.

"If somebody is on a watchlist and an enemy of the state … I would keep them away, absolutely," he said.

Ben Carson said on the same show that he is a big supporter of the Second Amendment and there needs to be better "due process" when it comes to the watchlist. He raised the same concerns as some civil liberties groups who are critical of how the FBI puts it together.

He noted that there are people on the watchlist who have no idea why they are on it and no one will tell them and they can't get off it.

NRA wants status quo

The NRA uses the same argument and it points to the famous example of former Senator Edward Kennedy mistakenly ending up on the no-fly list. In 2004, he was barred from a plane because a suspected terrorist used his name as an alias.

The NRA says the flawed watchlist should not be a justification for denying Americans their constitutional right to keep and bear arms. People on the watchlist aren't necessarily convicted criminals, they are only being watched, the group wrote on its website recently.

It further argues that adding the FBI watchlist to the list of reasons a gun purchase can be blocked would tip off real terrorists that they are under surveillance. If they don't fall into any of the other prohibition categories yet are denied, they would know it's because of being on a watchlist, the NRA argues.

Hundreds of people a year on the watchlist are allowed to buy guns, according to data from the Government Accountability Office.

Between January 2013 and December of last year, people on the watchlist were involved in background checks 485 times. Ninety-four per cent were cleared. Only 30 applications were denied, but not because they were on the watchlist.

U.S. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein says it is a loophole in federal law that people on the FBI's terro watchlist can still pass a background check when they try to buy a gun. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

Reasons for a denial include people who are users of illegal drugs, have gone to prison for more than a year, are subject to a court order related to stalking or harassment or are fugitives or illegal residents.

Since 2004, at least 2,233 background checks have been related to individuals on the watchlist, and of those, 91 per cent of the transactions were approved.

Background checks are only done at federally licensed gun dealerships. The same rules do not apply to private or online gun sales, an ongoing source of lobbying for gun control advocates who want expanded background check laws.

Democrats say the statistics on background checks are shocking and Republicans need to act immediately to help close the loophole and to enact other measures on gun control.

Feinstein issued a statement Thursday in response to the San Bernardino shooting and said Congress has a problem: a "debilitating fear of upsetting the gun lobby."

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