Sunday, September 23, 2007

Mayor Endorses Another Gun-Control Measure

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg held a news conference under the Brooklyn Bridge today to call on Congress to pass a bill that would allow the Justice Department to block gun sales to people who appear on the federal government’s terrorist watch lists.

The bill, sponsored by Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, and Representative Peter T. King, Republican from Long Island, has the support of the Justice Department. But gun control of any kind remains a touchy issue in Washington, where many of the new Democrats in Congress last year were elected on pro-gun stances. Michael Luo of The Times described the bill when it was proposed in April.

Since 9/11, local law enforcement officials and gun control advocates have raised concerns that terrorists might exploit loopholes to buy weapons. John Ashcroft, the former attorney general and a supporter of gun rights, blocked the Federal Bureau of Investigation from comparing federal gun-buying records against a list of suspects detained as part of the 9/11 investigation. He argued that the Brady gun law, which governs the federal system for background checks, prohibited sharing such information for other law enforcement purposes.

In 2004, the F.B.I. instituted a new system that alerted counterterrorism officials when a terrorism suspect tried to buy a gun, giving them three days to find information to disqualify the suspect under the standard federal prohibitions. If the transaction was successful, details like the type of weapon and the place of purchase could not be shared. But if the purchase was blocked, the information could be turned over. In 2005, at Senator Lautenberg’s request, the Government Accountability Office looked into the matter and found that federal law enforcement officials approved 47 of 58 gun applications from terrorism suspects over a nine-month period.

Mayor Bloomberg said today that the Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition he co-founded with Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston, had decided to come out in support of the bill.

“One of the most glaring mistakes in preventing 9/11 was the government’s failure to share information and connect the dots,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “As you remember, two of the 19 hijackers were on a terrorist watch list, yet they were allowed to board an airplane. Today, suspected terrorists cannot fly — but they can still buy guns. We just can’t afford to wait for another attack to take these kinds of basic, common-sense precautions.”

The National Rifle Association opposes the measure.

“There’s no one more opposed to terrorists acquiring guns than the 4 million members of the N.R.A., but just because you’re on a watch list doesn’t make you a terrorist,” said Chris W. Cox, the association’s chief lobbyist.

Mr. Cox said the process by which the terror watch lists are devised is not subject to the due process guarantees that criminal defendants are afforded at trial. He noted that the watch lists often result in significant errors: Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, was blocked from boarding flights because his name triggered a similar name on the government’s no-fly list.

“To give a political appointee the arbitrary power – and it is arbitrary — to decide who gets to own a firearm and who doesn’t, with no due process, is bad policy,” Mr. Cox said.

Mr. Bloomberg, who has made gun control one of his major causes, appeared to be trying to use antiterror sentiment to bolster his broader argument against illegal guns.

Mr. Lautenberg joined Mayor Bloomberg at the news conference, as did Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy of Jersey City and Mayor Douglas H. Palmer of Trenton, who is the current chairman of the United States Conference of Mayors.

Under current federal law, there are nine factors — including status as a felon or evidence of a serious mental health problem — that disqualify an individual from buying a gun. The bill would give the Justice Department the ability to disqualify people on terror watch lists from buying a gun from a licensed dealer. Under the bill, a suspect would have the opportunity to challenge the determination in federal court.

Mr. Bloomberg was also joined by Devorah Halberstam, whose 16-year-old son Ari was fatally shot on March 1, 1994, on an on-ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge. A Lebanese immigrant, Rashid Baz, was convicted of murder; he had opened fire on a van carrying 15 members of the Lubavitcher sect of Orthodox Judaism who were returning from a visit to the hospital where the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson, had undergone surgery.

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