What The Terror Gap Is & Why You Should Care About It

Photo: Andres Kudacki/AP Photo.
On the heels of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are debating new gun regulations.

Senate Democrats want to stop anyone on a government terror watch list or people who might have ties to terrorists from buying a firearm or explosive. Republicans, however, have said that they find that proposal too expansive, preferring instead to prevent a weapon sale if there is reason to believe the purchaser has committed or is planning to carry out an act of terror), according to The New York Times.

The flurry of activity in Washington comes after news emerged that as early as 2013, the FBI had contact with the man who shot and killed 49 people and injured dozens more at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

In May 2013, the FBI opened an investigation into Omar Mateen following inflammatory comments he is said to have made to coworkers, according to FBI Director James Comey. Mateen was interviewed twice, admitted to making such statements, but said he did so in anger.
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where mass shootings lead to any legislative changes at all, it tends to be in the direction of guns becoming more easily available.

The New York Times
His case was closed but soon reopened when there was an indication that he was a "casual acquaintance" of a man who blew himself up in Syria on behalf of the al-Qaida-linked terrorist group, Nusra Front. "Our investigation turned up no ties of any consequence between the two of them," Comey said in a statement.

Just prior to the shooting, the gunman, who had worked as a security guard, legally purchased two guns: an AR-15-type assault rifle and a handgun. As heartbreak turned to outrage following the shooting, and lawmakers asked why someone who had been investigated by the FBI could so easily purchase a gun, Comey said the agency was reviewing whether things should have been done differently. "So far, the honest answer is: I don’t think so," he said.

It's left many in America wondering how the shooting could have been prevented, and what gun control measures are needed now. Ahead, Refinery29 answers some of the most common questions about the terror watch list and gun control, and breaks down what's at stake.

Watch lists are notoriously overbroad, rife with secrecy, and prone to error, raising significant civil liberties and due process concerns.

Jonathan Hafetz, Seton Hall University law professor
What is the terror watch list?
The Terrorist Screening Database is a consolidated U.S. government list of people who are alleged to be known or suspected terrorists. U.S. government agencies "nominate" people to be included on the list "based on credible information" which is subject to "several layers of review," according to the FBI. The No Fly List is a subset of the larger database and includes people who the U.S. thinks might be an aviation or national security threat.

Critics, like the American Civil Liberties Union, say the information regarding terror suspects "risks stigmatizing hundreds of thousands of people," and the intelligence is often "based on vague, overbroad, and often secret standards and evidence." The effects of being placed on such lists "can be far-reaching."

According to documents obtained by The Intercept, half of the people on the U.S. database had zero connection to any known terror groups. "That category — 280,000 people — dwarfs the number of watch-listed people suspected of ties to al-Qaida, Hamas, and Hezbollah combined," the online news site found.

"Watch lists are notoriously overbroad, rife with secrecy, and prone to error, raising significant civil liberties and due process concerns,” Jonathan Hafetz, a professor at Seton Hall University School of Law, told Refinery29 via email.

"But if we are going to have watch lists, such as those that prevent individuals from boarding airplanes or requiring additional security at airports, it's a no-brainer to use them to prevent the same individuals from obtaining firearms," Hafetz added.

Florida has some of the nation’s most lenient laws when it comes to gun sales.

Law Center To Prevent Gun Violence
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Do background checks prevent people on the terror watch list from buying guns?
The AR-15, which was used in the Sandy Hook School shooting, is "America's most popular rifle,” in part because it is "is customizable, adaptable, reliable, and accurate," according to the National Rifle Association. One of the guns used in the Orlando shooting was an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle.

Florida has some of the nation’s most lenient laws when it comes to gun sales. While a three-day waiting period is required by the state, background checks are not required when guns change hands between private parties. The state also does not limit the number of weapons that can be purchased at one time or regulate “unsafe handguns” or large capacity ammunition, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

A person living in Florida is usually only prohibited from having a firearm if the person is convicted of a felony or is a "violent career criminal," as defined by law, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Likewise, there is no requirement under federal law to prohibit a person on a watch list from buying a weapon.

Last year, the FBI ran background checks some 23 million times, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. But nationwide, individuals who were on a terrorist watch list who tried to buy a weapon were able to do so almost all of the time, the GAO found. In 2015, while people on the terrorist watch list were routinely checked, some 91% of the time they were allowed to proceed with a firearm purchase, according to federal data. Transactions were denied only 21 times — out of 244 firearm-related background checks.

There are simply far too many guns in the United States. It should be illegal for any private citizen to obtain a weapon like the one used in the Orlando massacre, which is designed for military combat, not for individuals in civil society.

Jonathan Hafetz, Seton Hall University law professor
After mass shootings, is tighter gun control legislation passed?
Following mass killings, defined by federal statutes as incidents in which there are three fatalities or more, states introduce more firearms bills, according to an analysis by three Harvard Business School professors.

But when it comes to enacting the laws, the results might not be what you’d expect. A mass shooting increases laws that actually "loosen gun restrictions by 75% in states with Republican-controlled legislatures,” the professors found. There was "no significant effect of mass shootings on laws enacted" by a legislature controlled by Democrats.

Or, as The New York Times put it, "Where mass shootings lead to any legislative changes at all, it tends to be in the direction of guns becoming more easily available, like lowering the minimum age to buy a handgun to 18 from 21, or eliminating a waiting period for a gun purchase."

Current laws would not and did not stop the Orlando gunman from obtaining the weapons he used to senselessly kill 49 people.

How can another mass shooting be prevented?
Current laws would not and did not stop the Orlando gunman from obtaining the weapons he used to senselessly kill 49 people.

"Sadly, there is no way to stop people like Omar Mateen. Zero. Nothing. He was a homophobic homicidal maniac that killed because of his warped religious beliefs," Mark Rossini, a former FBI agent who worked on complex criminal cases and counterterrorism matters, wrote on a social media post.

"Just because someone is ‘a person of interest’ does not constitute guilt. You are innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law. If you want people like Omar Mateen stopped potentially…then change the law," Rossini added.

Hafetz agreed that tighter gun control laws are what is needed.

"Even using a watch list to deny potential gun purchases would not be foolproof, as the case of the Orlando shooter indicates since he was removed from the list. Ultimately, watch lists address the problem only at the margins," Hafetz said. "There are simply far too many guns in the United States. It should be illegal for any private citizen to obtain a weapon like the one used in the Orlando massacre, which is designed for military combat, not for individuals in civil society."
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