The Challenges of Gun Control: Denying Firearms to Terrorists
Following several tragic mass shootings, the U.S. is embroiled in a debate about gun control. The central question for many involved in this debate is, since the right to bear arms is enshrined in the Second Amendment, how do you craft legislation to address the outbreaks of violence without eroding constitutional rights? Last year we were asked to produce a study on proposed legislation designed to deny firearms and explosives to terrorists, and our research illustrates both the importance of the subject and also the difficulty of crafting legislative solutions to the problem.
Our study was requested by Rep. Peter King, who then served as the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. He requested analysis related to H.R. 1506, the “Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act.” This legislation was designed to address what Rep. King has described as the “terror gap,” federal law enforcement’s lack of authority to block sales of firearms to individuals on terrorist watch lists. As proposed, the act would allow the attorney general to deny the transfer or purchase of a firearm if “the transferee is known (or appropriately suspected) to be or have been engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism, or providing material support thereof, and the Attorney General has a reasonable belief that the prospective transferee may use a firearm in connection with terrorism.”
Firearms violence related to terrorism is only a small subset of gun violence in the United States. Nonetheless, our research—which resulted in the monograph The Tactical and Strategic Use of Small Arms by Terrorists—revealed the utility of firearms for terrorists, both domestically and internationally. After all, firearms are among the most tactically flexible weapons; and for lone wolf or small-group attackers, they are one of the most simple to use and readily available options.
Our study examined, in detail, potential uses of small arms by terrorists and terrorist groups. The typologies that we examined were assassinations, single-shooter attacks, two-shooter teams, mass attacks and frontal assaults, complex urban warfare attacks, hostage taking, robberies, and siege warfare. Given the relatively low incidence of firearms-related terrorist violence in the U.S., many of our examples were drawn from overseas. We did, however, explore a number of domestic cases that occurred in the 1990s and beyond.
Assassinations. The most prominent assassination during this period that could be classified as terrorism occurred in 1990. In early November, El Sayyid Nosair concealed a handgun to conduct the assassination of Meir Kahane, a rabbi and former Israeli politician known for his extreme nationalism who was delivering a speech in Brooklyn, New York. Nosair disguised himself as a Sephardic Jew, and shot Kahane in the neck and chest with a .357 caliber magnum revolver. As the assassin fled, he shot and injured an elderly man who attempted to prevent his escape, only to encounter an armed United States Postal Inspection Service officer outside. In the resulting exchange of gunfire, the officer was shot in his bulletproof vest, while Nosair was hit in the neck and dropped his weapon.
Single-shooter attacks. In several instances, terrorists have conducted shootings at locations of symbolic or practical importance rather than directly targeting specific public figures. In January 1993, Aimal Kasi, a Pakistani native living in Reston, Virginia, purchased an AK-47 semi-automatic rifle with the intent of attacking targets linked to either the U.S. or Israeli government. He chose the CIA as a target “because CIA officials are not armed,” Kasi later explained in a written statement.
On January 25, Kasi stopped his pickup truck at a red light outside the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. He got out of the vehicle and started firing at other cars that were waiting at the light: he fired ten rounds, killing two people and wounding three others before fleeing. Kasi then hopped on a flight to Pakistan, where he hid near the border with Afghanistan. FBI agents finally apprehended Kasi in Pakistan on June 15, 1997, and returned him to Virginia for prosecution. According to his confession, made on the flight back to the U.S., Kasi wanted to kill CIA officials because of numerous political grievances, including U.S. airstrikes against Iraq, the “killing of Pakistanians by U.S. components,” and the CIA’s involvement in Muslim countries.
On July 4, 2002, Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, an Egyptian national, brought .45 caliber and 9mm handguns, along with a knife, to the El Al ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport. He began firing the .45 caliber pistol at close range, killing two Israeli nationals, and wounding four other people at the counter. He also stabbed and injured a security guard who fatally shot him. Though Hadayet was not connected to a formal terrorist organization, the FBI eventually concluded that this was an act of terrorism: Hadayet was motivated by “his intention to advance the Palestinian cause in the Israel-Palestine conflict through the killing of civilians and the targeting of an airline owned by the Government of Israel.”
In June 2009, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, a convert to Islam who had spent sixteen months in Yemen, shot two soldiers who were on a smoke break outside a military recruiting center in Little Rock, Arkansas. Muhammad killed Private William Andrew Long and wounded Private Quinton Ezeagwula with a SKS semi-automatic rifle that he fired at them from his car. Muhammad, who by his own account could be classified as a salafi jihadi, said he would have killed more soldiers had he been able to receive better training for martyrdom operations. He had also researched military bases, government buildings, and Jewish institutions as possible targets of attack.
Among recent domestic terrorist attacks, though, the most devastating single-shooter killing spree occurred in November 2009 at a dining facility on the Fort Hood military base near Killeen, Texas. Major Nidal Hasan had received orders to deploy to Afghanistan, a mission that would have been at odds with his increasingly extreme Islamic beliefs. Hasan had long experimented with fundamentalist beliefs, and ultimately adopted an ideology sympathetic to al Qaeda. He quite famously struck up a rather one-sided correspondence with the extremist cleric Anwar al Awlaki, who was affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Hasan purchased a FN 5.7mm pistol on July 31, 2009, and practiced at a civilian shooting range thereafter. On the day of the Fort Hood shooting, Hasan also brought a .357 magnum revolver, though he did not use it in his attack. When he arrived at the dining facility, Hasan shouted “Allahu Akbar,” drew his FN 5.7mm, and proceeded to inflict the most deadly shooting spree on a U.S. military base in history. Hasan initially sprayed rounds around the room, then began to single out individual soldiers. His goal appeared to be killing as many soldiers as possible: he killed 13, and wounded 32.
Two-shooter teams. Single shooters have been able to inflict a number of casualties in a short period. But another model shows how a small team, with careful target selection and patience, can stretch out their action for a period of weeks, creating more confusion, fear, and economic losses.
Over the course of three weeks in October 2002, in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, the “Beltway sniper” team, demonstrated the effectiveness of a two-man team for conducting a sustained, sophisticated attack. The small team model allowed the two to operate unimpeded and unseen in the midst of a major metropolitan area. They traveled in a Chevy Caprice with a modified trunk that allowed the shooter to fire concealed, while the other team member was at the wheel.
Although the attacks were described by the media as a “sniper” case, the shots were in fact made from relatively short range for a rifle, 50 to 100 yards, using a holographic sight and bipod. The firearm used in these shootings was a Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle, semi-automatic and legal in the United States. The rifle was chambered for the widely-available 5.56mm round, which made acquisition of new ammunition easy.
Muhammad was violating gun laws by possessing a firearm while under a restraining order. Moreover, he had previously been the lead suspect in a 1991 grenade attack against fellow soldiers in the U.S. Army’s 84th Engineering Company as they prepared for “the ground-attack phase of the Gulf War.” According to retired Sgt. Kip Berentson and at least two other former soldiers in the 84th, Muhammad had thrown a grenade into a tent that housed sixteen soldiers. But the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division did not file an indictment—a fact that seemed inexplicable to Berentson—nor does the inquiry appear in Muhammad’s Army records.
While several possible motives for the shootings emerged during the investigation, Malvo’s testimony suggests political/religious motives that fit the definition of terrorism. Malvo explained that the shootings were part of a rather grandiose plan to undermine the U.S. government.
Siege warfare. American law enforcement’s experience with sieges—though not within the context of terrorist groups—demonstrates the power of the tactic. The famous 1993 siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, sheds light on the tactical vulnerabilities a terrorist group can exploit. David Koresh’s followers had stockpiled weapons, including semi-automatic rifle components that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) believed could be illegally converted into fully-automatic weapons. On February 28, 1993, the ATF attempted to execute a search warrant of the Branch Davidian property with a raid that devolved into a firefight. Both sides claimed the other fired first, and when the dust settled after the first day, four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians had been killed.
On April 19, the FBI bombarded the building with CS gas grenades and used Combat Engineering Vehicles to breach the walls of the compound. Several fires erupted in different parts of the building. FBI surveillance recordings indicate that Branch Davidian members deliberately set the fires, but the assault remains controversial because at least eighty inside the compound died. In addition to demonstrating tactical vulnerabilities that domestic terrorist groups could exploit, the Waco Siege and a smaller-scale incident at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, resonate strongly with some elements of the extreme American right. The Waco siege in fact represented a decisive moment in Timothy McVeigh’s decision to launch domestic attacks.
Conclusion. Firearms are of great utility to terrorists, including domestically. But this is where we come to the problem of actually legislating a solution. In looking at the language of H.R. 1506, we had several critiques, including the breadth of the statutory language.
But more relevant to the question of trying to legislate solutions to gun violence was the question of whether the legislation would save lives. Looking at the incidents that comprised our study, it wasn’t clear to us that H.R. 1506 could have saved lives in any of them. In the Little Rock shooting case, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad had been under investigation by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force due to his “travel to Yemen and his arrest there for using a Somali passport.” He also legally purchased a firearm while under investigation. Though these facts may give rise to hopes that H.R. 1506 could have prevented the shooting, there is a problem: the one legal firearm purchase Muhammad made during preparation for the shooting was only designed to help him discover whether he was being watched. Because that purchase was unnecessary to the actual shooting, blocking the gun sale likely wouldn’t have saved lives, unless Muhammad were deterred from executing his plot due to fears that he was under surveillance.
Nidal Hasan’s name had also come up in an investigation: JTTF investigators flagged him for correspondence with extremist preacher Anwar al Awlaki. However, it’s highly unlikely that Hasan would have been denied the ability to purchase the firearms he later used in the Fort Hood shooting based on this. After all, he remained a member in good standing of the U.S. armed forces despite coming up in the investigation, and it seems implausible that an individual would simultaneously be allowed to serve in the military and be barred from purchasing a firearm.
In the other U.S.-based cases, the legislation would similarly be unlikely to prevent violence. Despite John Muhammad’s grenade attack on fellow soldiers during the first Gulf War, he was never court-martialed for the incident, and it was expunged from his military records. Thus, there was no reason he would have been seen as a terrorism suspect. Further, he didn’t legally purchase the gun used in that string of killings. In Aimal Kasi’s case, media reports provide no indication that there were red flags prior to his shooting indicating a propensity for terrorist violence.
Of course, the fact that H.R. 1506 is unlikely to have saved lives in past domestic terrorism cases is not a perfect predictor of the future: cases may well arise where the legislation can, and does, save lives. However, using the past as a guide, the security benefits of the legislation should not be oversold.
Our bottom line was that small arms have been used by terrorists in the past, and they will be used by terrorists in the future. This is a real problem that it is right for legislators to consider, but legislative solutions are not simple. And this particular problem set—one that it is important in its own right—in turn sheds light on some of the broader difficulties involved in fashioning legislative solutions to gun violence.
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