N.J. already using U.S. watch lists to screen gun buyers

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy talking to reporters Friday.

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Gov. Dannel P. Malloy talking to reporters Friday.

The New Jersey State Police said Friday they have used the U.S. government’s terrorist watch lists to screen gun permits and purchases for two years under a law signed by Gov. Chris Christie, providing a model for how Connecticut might access the same data.

“It is in effect in New Jersey,” said Capt. Stephen Jones, a spokesman for the department. “New Jersey is the first state to use that as a disqualifier for the ability to purchase firearms, and it has been that way since the time of that signing. We do use that currently. We do have access to that data.”

Malloy, a Democrat who announced Thursday that he is negotiating with the White House over obtaining access to the lists for firearms background checks, said Friday he was generally aware of the law Christie signed Aug. 8, 2013.

Christie, a Republican presidential candidate who visited Connecticut a half-dozen times as the chairman of the Republican Governors Association to oppose Malloy’s re-election in 2014, is an unlikely ally on gun control.

Gov. Chris Christie in Connecticut during the 2014 campaign.

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Gov. Chris Christie in Connecticut during the 2014 campaign.

In fact, Malloy made sure he tweaked the New Jersey governor again Friday in acknowledging the Christie administration may be providing precedent.

“We were aware that New Jersey had legislation in place – apparently Gov. Christie was for gun control before he was against it,” Malloy said. “To the best of our knowledge, and this is not definitive, the system is not currently operational in New Jersey.”

Spokesmen for Christie, whose candidacy for the Republican president nomination is unlikely to benefit from any association with gun control, did not return calls for comment.

But Jones, the commander of the New Jersey State Police public information office, said his department’s firearms unit is able to run names against the watch lists through NICs, the National Instant Criminal Background Check system created by the FBI in 1998.

“It will come up in the federal checks,” he said.

Jones said New Jersey does not possess a copy of any watch list, nor would it want one, since they are constantly updated.

Terrorist watch lists, including a “no-fly” list President Obama wants to use to screen gun buyers nationally, are maintained in a consolidated Terrorist Screening Center data base maintained by the FBI, according to stipulations in a federal court case filed by plaintiffs who complained they were wrongly placed on the list and had no way to remove their names.

The government acknowledged in the case that names generally go on the list based “on a showing of ‘reasonable suspicion’ that the individuals are known or suspected terrorists based on the totality of the information TSC defines its reasonable-reasonable suspicion standard as requiring ‘articulable facts, which taken together with rational inferences, reasonably warrant the determination that an individual ‘is known or suspected to be, or has been engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of or related to, terrorism or terrorism activities.”

The government has its own “Watchlisting Guidance” for internal law enforcement use, which is not public.

The NICs system was mandated by the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act of 1993 as a ready means for state and local authorities to determine the eligibility of people to purchase firearms and explosives.

But the FBI and White House have failed to respond to a simple question: Is it true, as described by the New Jersey police, that a NICs background check taps into the Terrorism Screening Center and already reveals to police if a subject is on a watch list?

The White House press office promised early Friday that the FBI would answer that question.

The FBI responded indirectly by providing a copy of a transcript of a dialogue between U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and the FBI’s director, James Comey, at a Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday. Grassley was quizzing Comey on Obama’s claim in an Oval Office speech Sunday that legislation is needed to use the ‘no-fly’ list for gun screening.

“OK. Next point dealing with terrorists and the purchase of firearms – last week, our president stated that there are individuals who can’t get on planes, but they can go to a gun shop and buy a firearm and there – and quote – and he said nothing we can do to stop them,” Grassley said. “But – and correct me if I’m wrong – the FBI is notified when someone on the terrorist watch list attempts to purchase a firearm and a NICs check is requested. And the FBI has multiple avenues that they can pursue.”

Grassley told Comey he was under the impression that law enforcement already can use the data to delay a firearms transaction, arrest them if there is probable cause or place them under surveillance.

“My question: Aren’t these some of the tools available to the FBI to stop a suspected terrorist from buying a gun?” Grassley asked.

“Mr. Chairman, you’re right,” Comey replied. “There are a variety of things that we do when we are notified that someone on our known or suspected terrorist database is attempting to buy a firearm. The FBI is alerted when that is triggered. And then we do an investigation to understand, are there disqualifiers that we’re aware of that could stop the transaction? And if the transaction goes through, the agents who are assigned to that case, to that subject, are alerted to it so they can investigate.”

If the data already comes up in a NICs check, then what is the uncertainty about whether Connecticut would be permitted to use to it to screen gun purchases? And why has Malloy said one option sought by Connecticut would be to obtain a copy of a consolidated watch list?

Devon Puglia, a spokesman for Malloy, confirmed Friday that Connecticut police have the same access to the data, but the state needs to negotiate an agreement spelling out how the watch list information can be used.

But the White House, given that Malloy was proposing to do what Obama called for Sunday, seemed oddly non-committal Thursday on whether it would share what has been a closely guarded and much criticized screening tool.

“I can’t speak to any specific conversations that Gov. Malloy may have had with somebody at the White House, but I certainly wouldn’t contradict what he’s said,” Obama’s spokesman, Josh Earnest, said during a briefing.

A bigger question in Connecticut is whether Malloy can issue an executive order changing the criteria for denying gun permits.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, suggested the governor could have consulted the General Assembly and presumably sought clear legislative authority when lawmakers met in special session Tuesday.

“The timing of his announcement is curious given it was made two days after the entire legislature was in session and could have been consulted,” Klarides said. She noted that the New Jersey law was passed nearly unanimously, suggesting Malloy might have found bipartisan support.

Connecticut has a system of background checks that was broadened after the gun deaths of 26 children and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown three years ago. It strictly dictates when a gun permit shall be denied.

Police must deny a permit necessary to purchase a firearm to those convicted of a felony or a specific list of misdemeanors, or those confined to a psychiatric hospital in the previous 12 months. In addition, police also can apply a general standard of “suitability,” which never has been defined in state law.

Residents have the right to appeal denials to the state Board of Firearms Permit Examiners. The board’s decisions can be appealed in Superior Court.

The administration has yet to unequivocally state if it believes the governor can add being on a watch list to the legislatively mandated criteria that requires police to deny a permit. Or does it believe he has that authority under the broader standard of suitability?

Puglia only would say Friday evening the administration believes it is on firm ground, so long as it obtains authorization from the federal authorities.

“Pending the outcome of conversations with the federal government,” he said, “we know we have the authority to do this.”

Correspondent Ana Radelat contributed to this story from Washington.

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