Terrorist Watch List No Obstacle to Bomb-Buyers, Says GAO

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The New York Times reported recently on a Government Accountability Office study finding that people whose names appear on the ginormous and ever-expanding "terrorist watch list" have had little trouble buying guns and explosives.  The GAO found that those on the list who tried to buy such items succeeded approximately 90 percent of the time.

The good news is that the GAO has also found that the TSA is able to detect guns and bombs at airport security checkpoints approximately no percent of the time.

Wait – that's not good news either, I guess.  See also "TSA Fails to Detect Box Cutters, Inflatable Yasir Arafat Dolls," Lowering the Bar (Oct. 28, 2008); "Homeland Security: Not Equipped to Deal With Handguns, Chainsaws," Lowering the Bar (June 10, 2005).  My own independent testing has shown that the TSA can get my shoes off with almost 100 percent efficiency, but to the best of my knowledge my shoes pose relatively little risk to the public.  (They are sometimes mildly stinky, but certainly not bad enough to overpower a flight crew.)  Perhaps some resources could be diverted to more urgent needs?

The Times article contains the sentence, "Gun rights advocates said showing up on a terrorist watch list should not be grounds for being denied a gun."  On the surface, that might sound nutty, but in my opinion it isn't, because the real problem here is the watch list itself.  As we learned last year, the watch list now has well over one million names on it, although they did finally get Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela off the list.  See "Nelson Mandela Removed from U.S. Terror Watch List," Lowering the Bar (July 3, 2008).  It does seem that anyone appearing on the watch list should not be able to buy guns or explosives, but that assumes that there is actually some reason to believe that a person poses a real danger just because his or her name is on the list.  With one million names on the list, it's almost certainly doing more to hassle non-terrorist Americans and Nobel Peace Prize winners ("let's see . . . 'Lama, Dalai' . . . step over here, please, sir") than stopping any actual bad guys, who can always think up a new name.

Obviously, we need a smallening of the list and a biggening of its enforcement, but only if these both happen together.  And can we all keep our shoes on now, please?

Link: New York Times
Link: "Firearm and Explosives Background Checks Involving Terrorist Watch List Records," Government Accountability Office GAO-09-125R (May 21, 2009) (PDF file).