Domestic Terrorism

Senate to Vote on Proposed Gun Control Measures Today

By Clara Spera
Monday, June 20, 2016, 9:30 AM

Today, the Senate will vote on proposed gun control legislation. While it is unclear if Senate Democrats will be able to garner enough support from Republican colleagues to pass any of the Democrat-backed proposals—which are being presented as amendments to the Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill, which was already on the floor—here, we offer a round-up of the various proposals.

I. Preventing the Sale of Guns to Suspected Terrorists

Perhaps the most talked-about issue since the shooting is Orlando has been ensuring that individuals who are on terror watch lists cannot get their hands on guns. President Obama highlighted this as a common-sense proposal in a recent set of remarks he made when visiting Orlando on Thursday.

Spearheaded by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), this proposed amendment to the appropriations bill would “give the attorney general the authority to block the sale of guns or explosives to known or suspected terrorists, if the attorney general has a reasonable belief that the weapons would be used in connection with terrorism.” This measure isn’t a new idea for Senator Feinstein: the proposal was modified from a bill she introduced in February 2015.

The amendment would allow the Department of Justice to prohibit known or suspected terrorists from obtaining firearms. The DOJ would determine, “based on the totality of the circumstances, that the [purchaser] represents a threat to public safety based on a reasonable suspicion that the transferee is engaged, or has been engaged, in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism, or providing material support or resources therefor.” There does not appear to be an express trigger for the ban, which is discretionary. The amendment does allow for a specific procedure if an individual believes she has been wrongly deprived of the ability to purchase a gun.

The amendment would also limit the ability of individuals who have been the subject of federal terrorism investigations in the past five years to obtain guns. If such an individual were to attempt to buy a gun, his purchase request would be specifically flagged and reviewed by the Department of Justice. According to Senator Feinstein’s website, this language was proposed by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Bill Nelson (D-Florida.). That part of the amendment specifically provides that:

The Attorney General shall establish, within the amounts appropriated, procedures to ensure that, if an individual who is, or within the previous 5 years has been, under investigation for conduct related to a Federal crime of terrorism, as defined in section 2332b(g)(5) of title 18, United States Code, attempts to purchase a firearm, the Attorney General or a designee of the Attorney General shall be promptly notified of the attempted purchase.

18 U.S.C. 2332b(g)(5), a federal criminal statute, defines, prohibits, and punishes “Acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries.”

Republicans, however, have proposed an alternative to Senator Feinstein’s amendment arguing that her proposal is overly broad and might prevent Americans with no real ties to terrorism from purchasing firearms. Senator John Cornyn’s (R-Texas) alternative would allow the Department of Justice to delay suspected terrorists from obtaining weapons “for a period not to exceed 3 business days” and, in the meantime, filing an emergency petition to attempt to stop the sale. The attempted purchaser would be notified of this procedure and would have the right to participate in any hearing that was the result of the emergency petition. The stated purpose of Senator Cornyn’s scheme is “to Secure our Homeland from radical Islamists by Enhancing law enforcement Detection,” or “SHIELD.”

II. Expanding Background Checks: Closing the “Gun Show Loophole”

The gun show loophole allows purchases of guns made on on the secondary market—from private sellers, usually at gun shows—to avoid the same kind of regulation and scrutiny that regular guns sales require. For example, private sellers do not have to run background checks on potential buyers. Democrats have rallied around closing this “loophole” for a while now, and it was a topic that was focused on during Wednesday night’s marathon filibuster.

A measure proposed by Senator Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.), who led the charge for last week’s filibuster, alongside Senators Chuck Shumer (D-NY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) would require almost–universal background checks on any gun sale, irrespective if the seller is a private one. The proposal allows for a limited and specific set of exceptions, like selling to law enforcement agents or a transfer of firearms that is a “bona fide gift between spouses [or] between parents and their children” and other close family members, for example.

Senator Murphy’s proposal would also address the “terrorist loophole” by improving background checks to ensure that the national electronic database (the National Instant Criminal Background Check System) were more robust and up-to-date, as it would impose financial penalties on states for not establishing “a plan to ensure maximum coordination and automation of the reporting of records or making of records available” to the national database. The general spirit of this part of the amendment is to guarantee “that all individuals who should be prohibited from buying a gun are listed in the [NICBCS].”

A competing, less exhaustive, background check measure has been offered by Republican law makers. Senator Chuck Grassley (R.-Iowa) would also improve the NICBCS, but his proposal—which does have support from Democrats like Senators Shumer and Booker—would not actually expand background check requirements for sales of guns and/or ammunition.