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October 26, 2009

A Tale of Two Terrorists

When most Americans think about gun control, they think about laws that are designed to stop street criminals from obtaining firearms. In the post-9/11 era, however, such laws are equally important in foiling the violent ambitions of terrorists. Because the gun lobby has successfully blocked federal efforts to prohibit those on the FBI’s Terrorist Watch List from buying guns, it is frequently up to individual states to provide the necessary safeguards to prevent such purchases.

Two recent arrests that made national headlines provide an interesting contrast in terms of states’ ability (or willingness) to handle this responsibility.

The first was made on September 25, when authorities apprehended 33-year-old Anes Subasic after a nine-hour search of his home in Holly Springs, North Carolina. Officials found counterterrorism literature, an empty sniper scope case, and ammunition in the house. Subasic is a Muslim who fled Bosnia during its civil war (later becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen). Along with Daniel Boyd, Zakaria Boyd, Hysen Sherifi, Dlyan Boyd, Ziyad Yaghi, and Mohammad Omar Aly Hassain; Subasic was charged with conspiring to provide material support to terrorists. The cell is accused of planning violent overseas operations and an attack on the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia.

Not only was the cell able to acquire a substantial cache of firearms (Daniel Boyd was also charged with selling a Ruger mini 14 and ammunition to a convicted felon), but it has also been revealed that Subasic held a permit to carry a concealed handgun in North Carolina.

Not that there weren’t obvious red flags in his background... The Bosnian Serb Republic courts had issued four warrants for Subasic’s arrest, one of which was international. An official with the Bosnian Serb police stated that Subasic “is known to be part of a criminal gang that operated in the wider area of Bosnia and the region.” All told, Bosnian Serb police charged Subasic 11 times on 16 counts of attempted murder, extortion and robbery. A waitress in Banja Luka recalled Subasic entering a restaurant and spraying fire randomly with an automatic weapon. “Whoever knows Anes, they are not surprised [by his recent arrest],” she said.

Because North Carolina is a “shall-issue” state, authorities were required to issue Subasic a concealed carry permit after he passed a computerized background check (Subasic had only minor traffic offenses during his time in the U.S.). A simple background investigation should have turned up Subasic’s outstanding international warrants, but no such investigation is conducted either for firearm purchasers or concealed carry permit holders in North Carolina.

Another terrorist who was recently apprehended had a much harder time arming himself. On October 21, Tarek Mehanna, a 27 year-old resident of Sudbury, Massachusetts, was arrested and charged with providing material support to terrorists. Authorities say Mehanna was part of a cell that attempted to join terrorist groups in Iraq, Yemen and Pakistan. When they failed to gain admission, they began plotting attacks on U.S. soil.

Inspired by the 2002 sniper attacks in Washington, D.C., Mehanna and his co-plotters hatched a plan to commit a mass shooting in a shopping mall in Massachusetts. However, according to U.S. Attorney Michael Loucks, “Mehanna and his co-conspirators ultimately abandoned this plan, because they could not obtain the automatic weapons they thought necessary to effectively carry out such an assault.”

Massachusetts certainly does not make it easy for dangerous individuals to get assault weapons. Any resident seeking to obtain a "large capacity" weapon (including assault weapons capable of holding more than ten rounds of ammunition directly, or via a high-capacity magazine) must obtain a special Class A license. The screening requirements to obtain this license are extensive, and law enforcement is given the discretion to deny any applicant they believe is a potential threat to public safety.

Unregulated private sales of firearms are also closely regulated in Massachusetts. The state requires all private sellers to submit a written report documenting each firearm transfer to the executive director of the state’s Criminal History Systems Board. Purchasers of firearms from private sellers are also required to submit this information. Additionally, no more than four firearms may be transferred by a Massachusetts resident in this manner in a given calendar year.

The National Rifle Association loves to claim that criminals will always be able to obtain firearms, no matter what laws are passed. The case of Tarek Mehanna gives lie to this notion. Clearly, smart gun laws can deter dangerous individuals bent on arming themselves for violence. In a time when internal threats in our country are very real, state legislators should pay heed to the case of Mehanna and put public safety over the priorities of the gun lobby.