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07 May 2010

Individuals on TSA's No-fly List Have Legally Purchased Firearms in the US

Earlier this week, the US General Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on the use of terrorist watch lists to screen firearms purchases with some truly stunning facts about gun purchases by potential terrorists. In short, persons one of the key US government terrorist watch lists can legally buy firearms in the US. Surprisingly, membership in a terrorist organization or in a suspected terrorist organization does not prohibit a person from legally buying or possessing firearms or explosives under current US federal law, and at least a few individuals on the TSA's no-fly list have been allowed to purchase firearms in the US after passing a required FBI background check. To put this surprising reality in a broader context, we'll first provide a very brief overview how firearm purchases are approved in the US.

Who can buy firearms in the US
Laws vary widely across the US, but in general, it is possible for an adult to legally purchase guns either from a dealer who has a federal license to sell firearms, or through a sale between private individuals. Anyone making a transaction through a licensed dealer is subject to an FBI background check.

Background checks and firearms dealers
If someone wants to purchase a firearm from a federally licensed firearms dealer, that person must pass a background check. The database used for this background check is the the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). If the NICS database indicates if a potential buyer is in one or more of the categories that would disqualify that person from purchasing a firearm from a licensed dealer. Those categories include being convicted of a crime or being under indictment for a crime punishable by more than one year in prison, being in the US illegally, or having been adjudicated as a mental defective or committed to a mental institution (see 18 USC §922 for details).

Terrorist databases and the NICS database
The NICS database includes information from the FBI's Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB), which has about 400,000 names, and is the database used to create the TSA's no-fly list. The TSDB includes both US and non-US citizens.

Terrorist watch lists and gun purchases
According to the GAO report (GAO-10-703T), between February 2004 and Februray 2010, there were 1,228 occasions where individuals in the FBI's Terrorist Screening Database were involved in firearms or explosives background checks. Of those attempted purchases, 1,119 (about 91%) were allowed to proceed. These transactions involved about 650 individuals, with about 450 of them involved in multiple transactions, and six involved with 10 or more transactions.

Can terrorists buy guns in the US?
The simple answer is that when it comes to gun purchases through a licensed firearms dealer, merely being a terrorist, or more precisely, being a person who is listed in the FBI's Terrorist Screening Database, does not disqualify a person from purchasing firearms.

Has anyone on the no-fly list purchased a firearm in the US?
Incredibly, the answer is yes. The GAO report stated that several transactions that occurred between March 2010 and February 2009 involved an unspecified number of individuals who were also on the TSA's no-fly list, and in every case the transaction was allowed to proceed. The report did not mention if there were any similar transactions during the rest of the time period covered by the report.

What do you think about firearms purchase restrictions for terrorists
At present, being on a terrorist watch list, or even being on the no-fly list, will not prevent someone from passing required background checks for firearms purchases. Here at, we would like to know what you think about this situation, and also what you think should be done to limit either the purchase or possession of firearms by anyone who is on the TSA's no fly list, the FBI's Terrorist Screening Database, or on any of the other key airline security and terrorist databases. Feel free to leave comments below:

Photo credit: TSA


  1. I think you're asking "loaded" questions. What makes you think the TSA for any other form of government entity can make a perfect "no-fly" list? You can bet there are people on these lists that just so happen to have names that are similar to actual terrorists’ names or people who deserve to be on "no-fly" lists. These law abiding American citizens with the similar names of deserving "no-fly" list people would be affecting by what your article is suggesting. I'm not for allowing criminals to purchase handguns, I'm for allowing "law abiding" citizens to have the opportunity to purchase handguns if they choose. Besides, your implying people are getting shot everyday inside of airplanes.

  2. I thought only U.S. citizens are the only people legally able to buy firearms and possess firearms in the U.S.A., that is, if they do not cross the restrictions placed by local and federal governments, such as: being a convicted felon, etc....

    And by the way, being a a terror watch list doesn't make a person a terrorist. Mislabled people, same names as foreigners, can be hauled on the carpet through mistaken identity. No legal due process in being on a watch list. And, what are the qualifications of being attached to a terrorist watch list???

    I don't want gun rights of legal U.S. citizens to be impuned by measures that cannot be justifiable in a legal court of law.

  3. Since when was putting an individual on a secret "ban" list where you are unable to face your accusers and have your rights stripped arbitrarily a "normal" thing?

  4. Innocent until proven guilty.

    We cannot start suspending constitutional rights and seizing property based on suspicion.

    Additionally laws prohibiting acquisition of firearms or explosives will not deter someone who is intent on commition a crime anyway.

    Someone on a terrorist watch list trying to pass a fire arms background check is a excelent way to alert federal authorities to investigate this individual closely.

    My answer to in flight safty: Every adult on the plane gets a single use taser when boarding, which is to be returned when deplaining. Discharge of said taser will require a discussion with law enforcement. Any one attempting to hijack a plane will be readly identifieable by the burn marks covering his body.