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No guns for terrorists

Within just the past week, Marylanders have gotten two reminders of the risks we face from home-grown terrorists. On Monday, federal authorities arrested Mohamed Elishinaway, a 30-year-old Edgewood man who had reportedly pledged allegiance to ISIS and is accused of receiving thousands of dollars from overseas groups to help him stage an attack. A week earlier, Kirk Green, a 56-year-old Edgewater man, was arrested on suspicion of planning acts of domestic terrorism after investigators found two guns, boxes of ammunition and documents detailing his plans to violently attack government agencies and employees in his vehicle.

Fortunately, a bystander in the grocery where Mr. Green was shopping called police to report a person acting strangely and threatening customers. When questioned by officers, Mr. Green reportedly claimed "I own you and the government" and boasted that "I can kill people. I can kill everyone." Authorities believe it was only by sheer luck — the presence of a citizen willing to speak up when he witnessed a situation that seemed out of the ordinary and potentially dangerous — that the potential tragedy of another mass shooting was averted.

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Authorities became interested in Mr. Elishinaway after he received a suspicious wire transfer from Egypt. They found extensive communications between him and a childhood friend who had been arrested in Egypt on terror charges, including discussions of terrorism.

In the wake of the San Bernardino killings, we should count ourselves fortunate that neither case led to bloodshed here. It's notoriously difficult to predict who will resort to the ideologically inspired violence of Islamic State and al-Qaida, and it's nearly impossible to detect every mentally unstable character or angry loner who for whatever reason might suddenly decide to go on a shooting spree.

But it is fair to ask whether we are doing everything possible to guard against such individuals obtaining firearms to carry out murder and mayhem, and the answer is clearly that we are not. We shouldn't have to rely on getting a lucky break every time to prevent the next terrorist outrage.

Yet officials intimidated by the clout of the gun lobby represented by the National Rifle Association and other gun rights organizations fear doing almost anything, however reasonable or limited in scope, that might displease those powerful groups. That reluctance reached the point of absurdity last week when Gov. Larry Hogan airily dismissed Rep. Chris Van Hollen's proposal that, in the absence of congressional action, the governor issue an executive order banning the sale of guns to people on terrorist watch lists.

To most people, banning the sale of weapons to suspected terrorists sounds like no-brainer. Why on earth would anyone want to make it easier for people who wish to do us harm to obtain the means of doing so? Nor was Mr. Van Hollen's idea exactly new. President Barack Obama recently made the same point in the aftermath of the mass shootings at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado in November and at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino. Dangerous people who we don't let get on airplanes, the president said, shouldn't be able to walk into a gun store and buy a firearm.

Yet Mr. Hogan called Mr. Van Hollen's request "silly" and rooted in "politics." The Maryland State Police already perform comprehensive gun background checks that flag applicants on the federal no-fly list, he says, and the department has never approved a gun buyer who was on the federal watch list. Even if it did, police would immediately put a hold on the purchase and contact the FBI and Department of Homeland Security to investigate the matter, so there's no need for an executive order expressly banning such sales, he said.

If that's the case, what's the harm in enshrining the practice into law? True, some individuals might not be able to buy firearms because they have been placed on the federal watch list by mistake. But their numbers are likely to be vanishingly small, and if the process really works the way Governor Hogan says, they're getting tripped up in Maryland anyway.

Last week Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy signed an executive order prohibiting people on terrorism watch lists from buying firearms, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination next year and a political mentor to Mr. Hogan, signed a similar law in 2013.

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Perhaps no one on the federal watch list has gotten a gun in Maryland yet, but as the two examples from the last week suggest, we can't rest confident that none will try. Enacting a ban on gun sales to such individuals may not be the most consequential thing we could do to stop terrorists and protect our citizens, but it may well be the most obvious thing we fail to do.

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