Captain Mark Kelly speaks at the 'Not One More' Event in New York City on Feb. 10, 2015.
Monica Schipper—2015 Getty Images
Ideas
April 28, 2016 11:10 AM EDT
Mark Kelly is a Navy combat veteran, a retired NASA astronaut and the Co-Founder of Americans for Responsible Solutions.

In 2011, an American-born al-Qaeda spokesman named Adam Gadahn took to YouTube to exhort sympathizers to arm themselves for attacks: “America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms,” he said. “You can go down to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle without a background check and most likely without having to show an identification card. So what are you waiting for?”

We should have commonsense laws that help guard our communities against the growing threat of active shooter terrorism. Instead, we have loopholes in our gun laws that allow known and suspected terrorists to pass criminal backgrounds check legally and buy guns. It’s up to our leaders in Congress to close the gaps in our gun laws that make us vulnerable to terrorist attacks here in America.

The consequences of this “terror gap” are clear: it allows dangerous people to get their hands on guns. According to the Government Accountability Office, known or suspected terrorists have attempted to purchase guns or explosives from America dealers more than 2,200 times since 2004. They successfully obtained weapons 91% of the time.

Still, the gun lobby and many of the candidates and elected officials it backs have worked hard to protect this dangerous loophole. Their strategy? Deny the facts and spread misinformation. National Rifle Association President David Keene has said: “There’s no evidence terrorists are buying guns.”

Meanwhile, active shooter terrorism has increasingly become a global threat. Gun-wielding terrorists in Mumbai killed 174 people at hotels and other landmarks in 2008. Al-Shabaab militants in Nairobi stormed the upscale Westgate Mall in 2013, shooting and killing 67 people and wounding at least 175 others. Twice in 2015 this brand of terror visited Paris—in January, when terrorists stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo and murdered 12 people, and again in November, when gunmen wielding military-style rifles and explosives killed at least 130 people and seriously wounded scores more.

As ISIS claimed responsibility for that barbarism in the City of Light, it also sent a warning to the U.S.: “We swear that we will strike America.” And on Dec. 2, 2015, in San Bernardino, Calif., two people armed with high-powered rifles and handguns murdered 14 people and injured 21 others in what authorities have since called a terrorist attack.

Suspected terrorists are prohibited from flying, but national security officials are powerless to prohibit them from buying a gun. The Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who obtained a Ruger pistol that was used to kill an MIT officer, was on a terrorist watch list. So were the Charlie Hebdo attackers. And terrorists can circumvent the background-check system entirely by buying guns at gun shows or via websites like Armslist.com, which boasts tens of thousands of guns for sale in all 50 states and two U.S. territories.

Steps to close this dangerous terror gap seem to only be controversial in Washington. Seventy-six percent of National Rifle Association members and 82% of gun owners support measures that prohibit known and suspected terrorists from legally accessing firearms. This overwhelming support is also bipartisan, with 86% of voters in support of closing the terror gap. Voters want Congress to set aside special interests and ideological agendas, and close these loopholes. All that would require is two commonsense steps.

First, close the dangerous loophole that allows people to purchase firearms at gun shows or online without a background check. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System typically performs a background check in less than one minute, and they’re already required by law for gun purchases from federal firearms licensees.

Second, give the Justice Department authority to prohibit the sale of firearms or explosives to those whose background check reveals them to be known or suspected terrorists. That way, law enforcement can target individuals who pose the greatest threat to our communities. Federal laws won’t let felons or domestic abusers purchase firearms, and they shouldn’t let suspected terrorists, either.

Sadly, when the U.S. Senate had the opportunity to do just that in December, the commonsense step was blocked. To date, New Jersey is the only state in the nation with gun laws that address these loopholes. And while other states are trying to act as well (the Hawaii House of Representatives just passed a similar measure), Congress should close the terror gap once and for all.

Americans should ask the people who want to represent them in Washington a simple question: If elected, would you vote to close these loopholes, or would you stand with the special interests and vote to maintain them? From Tucson to Aurora to Newtown to Charleston, we know the terror and carnage that a lone mass shooter can inflict. From Mumbai to Nairobi to Paris, we’ve seen the destruction that can be carried out by small cells of trained terrorists assaulting undefended targets. Unless Congress closes the terror gap, active shooter terrorism is increasingly likely to be our nation’s next great tragedy.

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