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Washington Dispatch / Bernd Debusmann: Al Qaeda and America’s gun laws

File it under “Fact is Stranger than Fiction.” An American citizen working for Al Qaeda calls on Americans in the US to take advantage of their country’s lax gun laws to better kill fellow Americans.

“What are you waiting for?” he asks in a video thought to have been produced somewhere in Pakistan.

The question came from Adam Yahiyeh Gadahn, who was born in Oregon, grew up in California, converted to Islam and became a spokesman for al Qaeda.

His message has the potential to revive the long-running on-and-off debate over American gun laws. They feature perplexing loopholes and are frequently blamed for the periodic mass shootings that have long been part of life in the United States, the country that comfortably leads the world in private gun ownership. (Yemen comes second, according to the authoritative Small Arms Survey issued by the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva.)

“America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms. You can go down to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle, without a background check, and most likely without having to show an identification card,” Mr. Gadahn observes in his video. Like all propagandists, he has scant regard for granular detail (more on that below) but the essence of the message is true – guns are very easily obtainable.

The video prompted Mark Glaze, Director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, to urge supporters of the group to call on Congress and President Barack Obama to address what he called a glaring threat to US national security.

“Ten years ago,” he wrote on the group’s Website, “we learned the cost of ignoring Al Qaeda’s murderous threats. We can’t afford to make that mistake again.”

Mayors Against Illegal Guns is a coalition set up by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2006 with 15 mayors. That number has grown to 550 and the group advocates “common sense legislation for background checks” of gun buyers. Common sense has been regularly defeated by the National Rifle Association (NRA), which sees all attempts to tighten regulations as assaults on the constitutional right, enshrined in the Second Amendment, to own and bear arms.

Hence there are wrinkles of America’s permissive gun laws so bizarre they beggar belief. To wit: “Membership in a terrorist organization does not prohibit a person from possessing firearms or explosives under current federal law.” Neither does inclusion on the government’s ever-growing terrorist watch list.

That is what the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the research arm of Congress, found after looking into the background checks of prospective buyers gun dealers are required to file to the FBI. According to a GAO report read at a congressional hearing last year, sales of guns and explosives to people on terrorist watch lists totaled 1,119 in a period of six years.

An editorial in the Washington Post, the hometown newspaper of America’s lawmakers, said that Mr. Gadahn’s call should serve as “a catalyst for the White House and Congress to move on legislation to close the gun show loophole and the terror gap.”

The term “gun show loophole” is something of a misnomer because it suggests, as did Mr. Gadahn, that weapons sold at gun shows are not subject to background checks. That only applies to private citizens selling guns to each other, not the licensed dealers who account for the vast majority of guns sold at these shows. Neither can one buy fully automatic assault weapons -- the huge arsenal on sale is semi-automatic, i.e. it requires the shooter to pull the trigger repeatedly. The result can be just as deadly as an automatic blast.

The Obama administration says it is taking the threat implicit in Mr. Gadahn’s call to American guns seriously but it remains to be seen whether there will be any action. If so, the Al Qaeda terrorist officially charged with treason would have more effect than, say, the president of Mexico, Felipe Calderon.

He has repeatedly urged tighter controls of guns sold from around 8,500 shops along the border with Mexico, where more than 36,000 people have died since 2006 in parallel wars drug traffickers wage against each other – for access to the rich US market -- and against the government. A good part of the arsenal comes from the American side of the border.

Mexican expressions of concern have largely fallen on deaf ears. Perhaps they will be more receptive now that a potential scenario features American Al Qaeda followers using American guns to kill fellow Americans.

(Bernd Debusmann is a widely read international journalist and writer on foreign affairs based in Washington. He can be reached at: bdebusmann@aol.com)