Now that congressional Republicans and roughly 50 cowered Democratic colleagues have passed a panicky bill to impede the entry of Syrian refugees, I think it’s time to pause for a reality check.
How predictable it is that the Republican Congress seeks to ratchet up the background checks on Syrian refugees, but will never consider expanding background checks on the gun purchasers already in America? Borrowing Chris Christie’s calculus, a five-year-old Syrian orphan is apparently deemed to be more dangerous than an all-American schoolyard doofus with a home-grown arsenal.
But the willful blindness is actually worse than that. While the Republican Congress is fixated on the refugees, thousands of officially suspected terrorists already living in America are free to buy as much weaponry as they want.
I bet you didn’t know that.
It’s totally true. As the federal Government Accountability Office explains it, “Membership in a terrorist organization does not prohibit a person from possessing firearms or explosives under current federal law.” The GAO says in a report that roughly 2,040 individuals on the FBI’s Terrorist Watch List bought weapons from American dealers between 2004 to 2014. Go figure. Terrorist Watch List denizens can be stopped from boarding airplanes, but if they want to buy AK-47s or dynamite - hey, no problem, this is America.
So why is Congress panicking about Syrian refugees while it allows the suspected terrorists to lock and load? Simple - because the NRA wants it that way. Even though Congress is scared of the refugees, it’s downright terrified of crossing the NRA.
Back in 2007, the Bush administration endorsed a Senate Democratic bill to bar the Watch List people from buying weapons. Gun-reform groups applauded the administration’s move; as Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said at the time, “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.” But the NRA shot it down as an infringement on Second Amendment absolutism.
A few years later, Congress launched its own bipartisan attempt to change the law. After all, the Watch List is comprised of roughly 700,000 people - suspected members of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, plus terrorist financiers and recruiters, and people who have spent time in training camps.
But this reform effort died too, thanks to pressure from the NRA. The suspected terrorists should be grateful that they have such skilled de facto defense lawyers working on their behalf. The NRA extolled its clients as “law-abiding people” who deserved their “Second Amendment rights,” but the NRA revealed its true motives when it warned in an 2009 editorial that if the Watch Listers were barred from buying weapons, “whole segments of lawful firearms commerce could be wiped out.”
So today, Congress beats up on Syrian refugees as it passes a bill without any expert testimony, without any committee hearings and without any input from the vetters. And while empty suits like Ben Carson compare the refugees to rabid dogs, the suspected terrorists who are already here, already listed by the feds, are free to conduct gun-buying sprees.
And nobody is happier about this than the bad guys. In a 2011 video, American-born al Qaeda operative Adam Gadahn offered some advice to those in America - Watch List suspects and others - who might wish to wreak havoc:
“And in the West you’ve got a lot at your disposal. Let’s take America, for example. America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms. You can go down to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle without a background check and, most likely, without having to show an identification card. So what are you waiting for?”
The man knows his native land.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org