WASHINGTON -- The National Rifle Association is urging the Bush administration to withdraw its support of a bill that would prohibit suspected terrorists from buying firearms.
Backed by the Justice Department, the measure would give the attorney general the discretion to block gun sales, licenses, or permits to terror suspects.
In a letter this week to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, Chris Cox, NRA executive director, said the bill, offered last week by Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat , "would allow arbitrary denial of Second Amendment rights based on mere 'suspicions' of a terrorist threat."
"As many of our friends in law enforcement have rightly pointed out, the word 'suspect' has no legal meaning, particularly when it comes to denying constitutional liberties," Cox wrote.
In a letter supporting the measure, Richard Hertling, acting assistant attorney general, said the bill would not automatically prevent a gun sale to a suspected terrorist. In some cases, federal agents may want to let a sale go forward to avoid compromising an ongoing investigation. Hertling also notes there is a process to challenge the denial.
Current law requires gun dealers to conduct a criminal background check and deny sales for specified prohibitions: if a gun purchaser has a felony conviction or a domestic abuse conviction or is an illegal immigrant, for example. There is no legal basis to deny a sale if a purchaser is on a terror watch list.
"When I tell people that you can be on a terrorist watch list and still be allowed to buy as many guns as you want, they are shocked," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which supports Lautenberg's bill.
In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings, lawmakers are weighing a number of measures to strengthen gun sale laws. The NRA is taking different positions depending on the proposal. A 2005 study by the Government Accountability Office found that 35 of 44 firearm purchase attempts over a five-month period made by known or suspected terrorists were approved by federal officials.