The massacre of 49 people in an Orlando nightclub has pushed the U.S. Senate to consider action on gun control, but some experts wonder if the proposed "No Fly, No Buy" legislation will make a dent in either gun sales or gun violence.
The idea, which is being floated by a group of Democrat and moderate Republican senators, is to restrict gun sales for people on the "no fly" list that the FBI maintains.
FBI officials confirmed that the Orlando shooter -- Omar Madeen -- had been on the FBI's terrorism watch list, but was removed in 2014 after an 11-month investigation could find no evidence he was plotting a terror attack, according to FBI officials.
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That was why he was able to purchase several automatic weapons days before Sunday's shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, (D-Calif.), introduced a measure that would deny firearms and explosives to anyone the attorney general suspects of being a terrorist. Democrats also want a vote on a proposal to expand background checks by requiring them for guns purchased at gun shows and online. Some Republicans say they are open to a "no fly, no buy" plan, but want a judge's approval for banning gun sales Some policy experts say that such a ban will have only limited impact.
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"We've seen in Orlando that it only takes one person to do an enormous amount of harm," said Jon Vernick, co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University. "Of course, in addition to this we need to be focusing on efforts to make it harder for all kinds of high-risk people to get guns. The clearest way to do that is with a universal background check."
Vernick notes that 40 percent of gun sales in the United States occur between private sellers or at gun shows, which are not subject to background checks. These checks are supposed to weed out violent felons, people with a history of domestic violence or an adjudicated mental illness from buying guns.
"That's the single largest loophole in federal laws," Vernick said.
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In fact, science backs up Vernick's claim. One recent study by researchers at Boston University found that changing three federal laws -- background checks on guns, background checks on ammunition and firearm identification would cut gun deaths in the United States by 90 percent.
Some experts say that one problem with "no fly, no buy" is the lack of information about how many people are on the no-fly list. The most recent information comes from a 2014 Congressional hearing, according to Jeffrey Kahn, law professor at Southern Methodist University and author of "Mrs. Shipley's Ghost: The Right to Travel and Terrorist Watchlists."
During that hearing, an FBI official said that 0.8 percent of the 800,000 individuals on the no-fly list were U.S. citizens -– a total of 6,400 people.
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"In a nation of 300 million people, that's a pretty small number," Kahn said. "If all of the wailing and gnashing of teeth is that 6,400 people can't buy guns, it doesn't strike me as a large bite out of the apple."
Kahn noted that the terrorism database and the separate no-fly list are shrouded in secrecy. Unlike other law enforcement actions, such as detention, arrest or surveillance, that can be overturned on review by another party -- such as a judge -- there's no check or balance on names on the terror lists. Fixing mistakes on the list can take years of legal fees and court fights.
In the meantime, FBI officials say they can't say how many people or exactly who is on these lists.
"The [FBI] Terrorist Screening Center does not publicly confirm nor deny whether any individual maybe included in the U.S. Government's Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) or a subset list," said Dave Joly, a spokesman for the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center. "Disclosure of an individual's inclusion or non-inclusion in the TSDB or on the No Fly List would significantly impair the government's ability to investigate and counteract terrorism, and protect transportation security."
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Kahn said watch lists are a tempting, yet legally flawed, law enforcement tool.
"If you had belief that someone was a terrorist why would you want them on a plane or buying a gun or at a Super Bowl game or on a cruise ship?" he said. "If you deny someone the right to do something, you not only must make sure the accuracy is high, but there must also be a meaningful opportunity to respond before a neutral judge. What we are talking about doing is creating a world which is, by necessity, a secretive and closed information environment in which only one side is given a chance to be heard."
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