Waving a newspaper story about last weekend’s shooting rampage in Orlando that killed 49 people, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray on Wednesday criticized Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., for opposing a bill that would ban gun purchases by people on the FBI’s terrorist watch list.
“How many headlines like this do we need to see before Congress does something?” asked Gray, the Democratic Senate nominee, standing outside Paul’s Lexington field office. “Senator Paul voted to let potential terrorists buy guns. He chose to protect the rights of radical Islam over the safety of innocent Americans. What was Rand Paul thinking? Where is his common sense? Where’s the backbone?”
In December, the day after an extremist couple shot and killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., Paul voted against a Democrat-backed bill that would have blocked the sale of guns through licensed firearms dealers to roughly 10,000 Americans whose names are reported to be on the secret watch list, indicating that federal law-enforcement officials suspect them of possible terrorist activity.
The legislation failed by a 54-to-45 vote, with all but one member of the Senate’s Republican majority opposing it.
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That bill likely would not have prevented last weekend’s massacre. The Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen, was on the watch list in 2013 and 2014 while FBI agents investigated inflammatory statements he made at work and his connection to a suicide bomber in Syria. However, the FBI says Mateen no longer was on the watch list in recent weeks when he bought guns he used in the attack.
Responding to Gray’s criticism Wednesday, Paul said he voted for an alternative bill last December, one backed by Republicans, to let federal law-enforcement officials delay gun sales to suspected terrorists for up to 72 hours. A sale could have been permanently blocked if officials persuaded a judge they had enough evidence in the case to justify it. Democratic senators derailed that bill, saying it wasn’t strong enough.
“In December, I voted to make sure no terrorist can buy guns in the U.S.,” Paul said in a prepared statement Wednesday.
“The legislation I supported, however, prevented the Obama administration from drawing up a secret list of hundreds of thousands or even millions of Americans who, through no judicial process, are stripped of their rights. Make no mistake, what Jim Gray and President Obama want to do together is take guns away from law-abiding Kentuckians,” Paul said.
The FBI created its terrorist watch list in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The list had about 400,000 people on it as of 2014, according to congressional testimony, about 2 percent of whom were American citizens. A subset of that list, with about 64,000 names, comprises the so-called “no fly” list barring people from airline travel to or within the United States.
Proposals to use the watch list to block gun sales have drawn due-process complaints from groups, including the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union. Critics point to a 2009 report from the U.S. Department of Justice’s inspector general that said the list is riddled with errors and out-of-date information, with no formal appeals process for citizens wrongly identified behind closed doors as terrorism suspects.
“The FBI was not always removing records from the watch list when it was appropriate to do so,” the inspector general wrote. “We believe the FBI needs to develop quality control procedures and describe mechanisms or procedures to modify or remove watch list records.”
However, advocates who favor using the watch list point to a recent letter from the Government Accountability Office that said 2,265 people whose names were on the list legally were allowed to buy guns or explosives from licensed firearms dealers from 2004 to 2015. The GAO said 212 people on the watch list were denied purchases during that period because of a felony conviction, mental-health status or other reasons allowed by law.
Asked Wednesday about civil liberties concerns, Gray said: “I believe that the FBI can put in place the policies and procedures to engage this appropriately. But some of these questions are really a distraction.”
“This is not going to compromise the rights of law-abiding citizens,” Gray said. “This legislation was supported by so many in the Congress and the overwhelming amount of Americans support legislation which would prevent criminals and terrorists and those with mental disabilities from owning and having guns. This is common sense, and this is where we ought to go with this legislation. This is a step forward.”
Gray said he does not favor a general ban on the sale of military-style assault rifles or other weapons, but he wants restrictions imposed on who can legally buy the weapons. Criminals, terrorists and the mentally ill should not be able to purchase a gun, he said.
“This would be a step forward to prevent it from occurring the next time,” he said. “I’m the mayor of a city. I have seen guns in the hands of criminals. And now we’re concerned about this in a so much more significant way, in the hands of terrorists. We must take steps, we must take action.”