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Dozens of Terrorist Suspects Buy Firearms in U.S., Agency Reports

By Eric Lichtblau

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

Dozens of terrorist suspects on federal watch lists were allowed to buy firearms legally in the United States last year, according to a congressional investigation that points up major vulnerabilities in federal gun laws.

People suspected of being members of terrorist groups are not automatically barred from legally buying a gun, and the new investigation, conducted by congressional officials at the Government Accountability Office, indicated that people with clear links to terrorist groups had taken advantage of this gap on a regular basis.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, law enforcement officials and gun control groups have voiced increasing concern about the prospect of having a terrorist walk into a gun shop, legally buying an assault rifle or other type of weapon, and using it in an attack.

The GAO study offers the first full-scale examination of the possible dangers posed by gaps in the law, congressional officials said, and it concludes that the FBI could do a better job of matching gun background checks against lists of suspected terrorists.

At least 44 times between February and June of 2004, people regarded by the FBI as known or suspected members of terrorist groups sought permission to buy or carry guns, the GAO found.

In all but nine cases, the FBI or state authorities who handled the requests allowed the gun applications to proceed because a check of the would-be buyer found no automatic disqualification, like being a felon, an illegal immigrant or a person deemed “mentally defective,” the report found.

In the four months after the formal study ended, authorities received another 14 gun applications from terror suspects, and all but two of those were cleared to proceed, the investigation found. In all, officials approved 47 of 58 gun applications from terror suspects over a nine-month period last year, the GAO found.

The gun buyers came up as positive matches on a classified internal FBI watch list that includes thousands of high-risk terrorist suspects, many of them being monitored, trailed or sought for questioning as part of continuing terrorism investigations, officials said.

GAO investigators were not given access to the identities or histories of the gun buyers because of the sensitivity of those terrorism investigations.

The report is to be released on Tuesday, and an advance copy was provided to The New York Times.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who requested the GAO study, plans to introduce legislation to address the problem in part by requiring federal officials to keep records of gun purchases by terror suspects for a minimum of 10 years.

Such records must now be destroyed within 24 hours as a result of a change ordered by Congress last year, but Lautenberg maintains that the new policy has hindered terrorism investigations by eliminating the paper trail on gun purchases.

“Destroying these records in 24 hours is senseless and will only help terrorists cover their tracks,” Lautenberg said Monday. “It’s an absurd policy.”

Lautenberg blamed the problem on what he called the Bush administration’s “twisted allegiances” to the National Rifle Association.