Following Hostage Situation At Texas Synagogue, Durbin Moves To Close Gun Loophole In Visa Waiver Program

WASHINGTON – Following the hostage situation at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, today announced his intention to reintroduce legislation to close a loophole in federal law that permits foreign nationals who have entered the United States through the Visa Waiver Program to purchase firearms.  Current law prohibits visa holders from other countries from purchasing guns, but excludes travelers from the Visa Waiver Program countries. 


“The individual who was allegedly responsible for the Texas synagogue hostage taking was reportedly a foreign visitor from the United Kingdom, a country that belongs to the Visa Waiver Program.  A loophole in federal law permits travelers from Visa Waiver Program countries to buy firearms, even though visitors from other countries are prohibited from purchasing guns,” Durbin said.  “In the coming days, I will reintroduce legislation to close this loophole and ensure that the prohibition on buying firearms applies to foreign visitors, whether they enter with a visa or not.” 


Since 1998, federal law has prohibited visiting foreign nationals from buying or possessing a firearm in the United States if the foreigner “has been admitted to the United States under a nonimmigrant visa.” This 1998 provision, which was authored by Senator Durbin, was enacted after Ali Hassan Abu Kamal shot seven people at the Empire State Building in 1997.


For years, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) interpreted this provision to prohibit the sale of firearms to all foreign visitors, not just those visitors who required a visa to be admitted to the United States.  In other words, the provision was construed to apply both to visaholders and to foreigners who visited the United States through the Visa Waiver Program.  However, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel reconsidered this interpretation in 2011 and determined that under the statute foreign nationals entering the country through the Visa Waiver Program could legally purchase firearms because they had not technically “been admitted to the United States under a nonimmigrant visa.”