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Which Terror List Are Democrats Tying to Gun Control, Exactly?

An aide to Feinstein said her bill has always referred to the terror database. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The White House and congressional Democrats are referring to two very different lists of potential terrorists interchangeably in their push for stricter gun laws, further complicating a politically white-hot issue.  

Since an Islamic State-inspired California couple used several legally purchased firearms to kill 14 people and injure nearly two dozen more, President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats have proposed linking the gun-purchasing process to two separate databases of terrorism suspects.  

At first glance, it appears the White House and Senate Democrats are proposing very different things because there is a big difference between the “consolidated Terrorist Watchlist" and the federal no-fly list. The consolidated database covers around 1.1 million people. The no-fly list includes many fewer people, around 47,000.  

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Republicans say Democrats are trying to hide the fact they want to use the larger list by using the name for the smaller list.  

Asked if Democrats are publicly referring to the smaller list out of fear of political backlash as Republicans slam their gun control proposals as a threat to Second Amendment rights, an aide to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., author of a gun control measure that was defeated on the floor last week, replied, “Even though the watch list is much larger, the percentage of the list that is comprised of Americans is very small.”  

Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said it would be “misguided” to search for a “policy reason” behind the Democrats’ murky messaging because “this is a political effort.”

Asked Monday about confusion over the two lists or whether the White House is citing the smaller list because it was more politically palatable, a White House spokesman said that Press Secretary Josh Earnest addressed the question in Monday's briefing. In the briefing, Earnest did not explain the discrepancies between the two lists. But in a Monday tweet, the White House referred to the "terrorist watch list," suggesting the larger list, citing a Government Accountability Office report that concluded from 2004 until 2014, more than 2,000 people in that database were able to purchase a gun.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a 2016 presidential candidate, said Sunday on CNN he believes “the majority of people on the no-fly list are oftentimes people that basically just have the same name as somebody else who [does] belong on the no-fly list."  

It is not immediately clear which list Democrats want to give a larger role in the gun purchasing process.  

The defeated Feinstein amendment would have prohibited individuals included on the consolidated database. Yet, in statement after statement since last Wednesday’s attack in San Bernardino, Calif., Obama and his chief spokesman have referred to the federal no-fly list.  

“There are several steps that Congress should take right away,” Obama said Sunday in a prime time Oval Office address. “To begin with, Congress should act to make sure no one on a no-fly list is able to buy a gun. What could possibly be the argument for allowing a terrorist suspect to buy a semi-automatic weapon? This is a matter of national security.”  

During press briefings since the shooting, Earnest also has time and again referred to the administration’s desire for Congress to pass legislation that would bar individuals on the no-fly list from legally purchasing firearms.  

“We don't need to conduct an investigation to determine that a common-sense thing like preventing an individual who is on the no-fly list from being able to buy a gun, would actually make all of us safer,” Earnest said on Dec. 4.  

Even the author of the since-defeated Senate amendment has used both terms — in a single news release.  

“If you’re too dangerous to board a plane, you’re too dangerous to buy a gun,” Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., says near the top of the statement. A few paragraphs later, however, she refers to the consolidated Terrorist Watchlist.  

But a Feinstein aide, who spoke anonymously to be candid, said her boss always has targeted the larger list. The aide pointed out that database includes the no-fly list and several others that are maintained by security agencies such as the FBI and National Counterterrorism Center.  

But the aide said Feinstein has sometimes referred to the no-fly database rather than the broader one her legislation actually covers for this reason: “That’s more relatable to the average person — people have heard of the no-fly list, not necessarily [ones like] the National Counterterrorism Center’s TIDE database.  

“I’d imagine that’s why White House officials have referred to no-fly as well,” the aide said.  

Sarah Trumble of Washington-based Third Way think tank said there’s little political risk because “everyone here is just trying to come up with ways to keep Americans safe,” telling Roll Call she is sure “everyone is talking about the same thing.”  

“Sen. Feinstein has had this bill for years. The White House know that, and knows that she is the expert on this,” Trumble said. “I don’t think there’s any way the White House is disagreeing with Sen. Feinstein or her bill.”  

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