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November 16, 2009

The Lessons of Fort Hood

On November 5, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, a licensed Army psychiatrist, walked into the Soldier Readiness Processing Center on Fort Hood military base in Killeen, Texas. After yelling “Allahu akbar,” Hasan, 39, opened fired with a semiautomatic handgun, killing 13 people (12 of them Soldiers) and wounding 32 others before he was shot by military police. Hasan sustained multiple injuries and is currently hospitalized in stable condition at an Army hospital in San Antonio. He will face 13 charges of premeditated murder in a military court.

The Fort Hood shooting ranks as the nation's worst ever on a military installation. It also has raised new fears about terrorist attacks on the homeland, as Hasan had been in contact with a radical imam that has praised the killings.

The U.S. Congress is now preparing to investigate the shooting to determine what action they might take to prevent similar tragedies in the future. Later in the month, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, headed by Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), will begin hearings on the subject. As these inquiries commence, we would urge legislators to take several important actions concerning America’s gun laws:

1) Close the “Terror Gap” in Gun Purchasing Laws and Allow Federal Agencies to Share Critical Information
A May 2009 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found that 865 individuals on the FBI’s Terrorist Watch List were allowed to purchase firearms from federally licensed gun dealers between February 2004 and February 2009. Amazingly, while individuals on the FBI’s list are prohibited from boarding planes, they can purchase as many guns as they want as long as they can pass an instant computer background check.

While there has been no indication from federal officials that Hasan was on the Terrorist Watch List, the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force had investigated Hasan after they discovered 10-20 email communications between him and Anwar al-Awlaki. Al-Awlaki, a radical imam now living in Yemen, was known to have associated with two of the 9/11 hijackers. Hasan worshipped at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque, led at the time by al-Alwaki, in Great Falls, Virginia, in 2001 along with the two hijackers.

When Hasan purchased his weapons in August 2009, the Joint Terrorism Task Force was not informed. An NRA-drafted provision in the “Tiahrt Amendments” attached to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) appropriations bill requires the Department of Justice (DOJ) to destroy completed background check records within 24 hours. The NRA has also been able to enact restrictions that restrict federal agencies from sharing information about legal gun purchases.

"The piece of information about the gun could have been critical," said former FBI Special Agent Brad Garrett. "One of the problems is that the law sometimes restricts you in what you can do." "We need to be smarter about sharing information," added former 9/11 commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste. "It's very disturbing to see…that the FBI is precluded from sharing information."

There is no rational reason to allow potential terrorists to purchase firearms. The U.S. Congress should act immediately to pass S. 1317—sponsored by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ)—and H.R. 2159, sponsored by Representative Peter King (R-NY). This legislation would give DOJ the discretion—subject to judicial review— to block gun sales to individuals on the Terrorist Watch List. Congress should also remove current information-sharing restrictions on federal agencies so that they can better monitor gun purchases.

2) Oppose and Defeat the “Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act”
In the U.S. Senate, Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) has offered a legislative proposal, the “Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act,” that would require that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to stop submitting the records of those found to “lack the mental capacity to contract or manage their own affairs” to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The immediate effect of this measure would be the removal of approximately 116,000 such records already in the system. These individuals would be free to purchase and own firearms even if the VA determined they are “mentally incapacitated,” “mentally incompetent,” or “experiencing an extended loss of consciousness.”

Senator Burr’s legislation would put veterans, their families, and the public in danger. Researchers are predicting that the rate of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among veterans returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom could be as high as 35%. Furthermore, the Army suicide rate is at its highest level in three decades. The New York Times reported that “at least 128 soldiers killed themselves [in 2008], and the Army suicide rate surpassed that for civilians for the first time since the Vietnam War.” All told, 12,000 veterans under VA care attempt suicide each year. A 2007 study by researchers at Portland State University and Oregon Health & Science University found that male veterans are twice as likely to commit suicide as their civilian counterparts. The study also found that veterans are 58% more likely to use firearms to commit suicide than non-veterans.

The shooting at Fort Hood wasn’t the only recent tragedy to remind us of how lethal the combination of mental illness and guns can be. Just two days after Hasan’s attack, a 63 year-old veteran suffering from PTSD opened fire while being escorted out of a bar in Vail, Colorado, killing one and injuring three.

The “Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act” is an affront to common sense and the well-being of America’s veterans and should be rejected by Congress.

3) Enact Licensing Laws for Handgun Purchasers
Currently, only 11 states in the entire country require the licensing of handgun purchasers. Of these, nine states conduct a thorough background investigation on licensees that goes far beyond a simple instant computer check through the FBI’s National Instant Computer Background Check System (NICS).

The problem with NICS checks (like the one which Hasan passed at Guns Galore) is that they lack critical information from state and local authorities. According to a Third Way report entitled “Missing Records,” “91% of those adjudicated mentally ill or involuntarily committed cannot be stopped by a gun buyer background check” because their disqualifying records are not in the system. In addition, one out of four felony conviction records are not in NICS. Third Way’s overall assessment of the database is that it is “deeply flawed.”

Would a background investigation (as opposed to a computer check) have stopped Nidal Malik Hasan from purchasing a handgun? Possibly.

There were several red flags in Hasan’s background that suggested he might have been a threat to himself or others. He had been working with service members suffering from PTSD for more than six years at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and experienced problems that required counseling.. He had also begun openly opposing America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and espousing extremist Islamic views. While a senior-year psychiatric resident at Walter Reed, Hasan gave a PowerPoint presentation to mental health staff members which concluded, “It’s getting harder and harder for Muslims in the service to morally justify being in a military that seems constantly engaged against fellow Muslims.” In the Spring of 2008 and again in the Spring of 2009, key officials from Walter Reed and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences met and expressed concern about Hasan's behavior, which fellow students and faculty had described as "disconnected, aloof, paranoid, belligerent and schizoid."

Finally, as described above, Hasan was being monitored by the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force because of emails he had exchanged with the radical imam Anwar al-Awlaki. The FBI was also investigating whether he was behind violent anti-American comments left on a website under the screen name of "NidalHasan."

None of these warning signs were revealed by the NICS check that Hasan underwent at Guns Galore. But any or all of this information might have been uncovered by a background investigation if Hasan had had to obtain a license in order to purchase a handgun. Such investigations typically involve interviews with licensees’ family, friends, and co-workers/colleagues.

Because instant computer checks are imperfect, the U.S. Congress should adopt licensing standards for handgun purchasers similar to those enacted in New York and New Jersey. This would help ensure that dangerous individuals do not legally acquire handguns.

4) Regulate High-Powered Firearms on the Civilian Market
Hasan used a Belgian-made FN Herstal Five-seveN semi-automatic pistol during the shooting which he legally purchased at Guns Galore in Killeen. The weapon's name refers to its 5.7 mm bullet diameter. The Five-seveN is popular with U.S Secret Service agents and police SWAT teams because of its ability to penetrate body armor. It is also popular with the Mexican drug cartels, who call the Five-seveN the “Mata Policia” (“Cop Killer”).

The Legislative Director of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, Steve Lenkhart, has called the Five-seveN "an assault rifle that fits in your pocket."

FN Herstal maintains that armor-piercing ammunition for the Five-seveN is only available to law enforcement and military personnel. However, when first launched for civilian sales, FN officials advertised that “enemy personnel, even wearing body armor can be effectively engaged up to 200 meters.” Additionally, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence tested the Five-seveN in January 2005 with commercially-available SS192 ammunition and found that it penetrated both Level IIA and Level IIIA body armor.

The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence joined the Violence Policy Center, Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Legal Community Against Violence, Freedom States Alliance, and States United to Prevent Gun Violence on a November 19 letter urging President Obama to use existing executive authority to prohibit the importation of the Five-seveN as well as 5.7X28mm ammunition with armor-piercing capabilities.

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