Terrorist suspects in the United States are buying firearms with the knowledge
and approval of the security forces, a congressional report revealed yesterday.
Those acquiring the weaponry included Islamists, radical militiamen and others
with ties to groups with a history of using violence to advance their aims.
The investigation said that the authorities had approved weapons licences on
at least 47 such occasions in a nine-month period. A further 11 requests were
All 58 were identified by the FBI as being either known or suspected terrorists
and many are being watched or monitored by the agency.
Under current laws, terrorist suspects are not barred from owning firearms.
Although background checks are carried out on all firearms purchasers, only
convicted criminals, illegal immigrants and the mentally ill are prevented by
law from owning guns.
The FBI has complained that laws restricting its use of gun owner records is
hampering attempts to bar weapon sales to people regarded as extremely dangerous.
"We're in a tough position,'' an FBI agent told the New York Times. "Obviously
we want to keep guns out of the hands of terrorists, but we also have to be
mindful of privacy and civil rights concerns, and we can't do anything beyond
what the law allows us to do."
Critics of the Bush administration have said that it has put the interests
of gun owners before the advice of counter-terrorist officers because of an
inbuilt sympathy for weapons enthusiasts. In particular, they pointed out that
the former attorney general, John Ashcroft, had for many months prevented the
FBI from matching its terrorist watch list against lists of gun buyers on civil
The report by the Government Accountability Office, which carries out many
investigations on behalf of the US Congress, said the FBI should be offered
greater powers to bar purchases by terrorist suspects.
The report also revealed that federal agents are legally obliged to destroy
the records of weaponry purchases by such individuals within 24 hours, because
of privacy laws.
Frank Lautenberg, the Democratic Senator of New Jersey who commissioned the
study, blamed the situation on the administration's "twisted allegiances"
to the National Rifle Association, America's leading defender of the constitutional
right to bear arms.
He said that he would be demanding action from the US government, including
an immediate requirement that the FBI keep the weapon purchase records of terrorist
suspects for 10 years.
Individuals on the FBI's terrorism watch list - believed to number several
thousand - should also be prevented from owning firearms, the senator said.
Peter Hamm, communications director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence,
said: "We have been trying to warn the public that the policies of the
current administration and some of the legislation passed by Congress is going
completely 180 degrees in the wrong direction when it comes to preventing terrorists
from arming themselves."