A No-Guns List Still Isn’t an Answer

Back in December, Senate Democrats, with President Obama’s backing, attempted to prohibit anyone on the federal government’s terrorism watchlist from purchasing a firearm.

At the time, I criticized the proposal for its lack of process and its inevitable inefficacy at reducing gun crime or terrorism.

Yesterday, Senate Democrats launched a filibuster in order to push for the resurrection of the failed “No-Guns List.”

The substance of their plan has not changed, and my earlier criticism still stands:

How does a person prove they are not a terrorist? It’s virtually impossible. A no-flyer doesn’t receive the evidence against them or a hearing before being placed on the list. They are not allowed to confront their accuser. Even getting the government to acknowledge that a person is on the list may require lengthy and expensive litigation. A person on the no-fly list may not even know they are on the list until they’re refused service at the airport. A person on the broader terror watch list has no means of finding out. The system is devoid of anything resembling due process, a flaw The New York Times condemned as being intolerable in a free and democratic society and over which the American Civil Liberties Union is currently suing the Obama administration. The no-fly listing procedure has already been declared unconstitutional by at least one federal judge.

Including too many people on the list is inevitable. Nobody wants to explain, after a terrorist attack, why the attacker wasn’t in the database. And that overly inclusive quality has manifested itself in absurd ways already. Just a few examples of no-fly denials: the late Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis, dozens of people named Robert Johnson, members of the U.S. military and federal air marshals.

The potential for false positives and mistaken identities is not just accepted as collateral damage by these no-gun list proposals; it is the entire point. Anyone who has actually been convicted or is currently charged with terrorism-related crimes is already prohibited from purchasing a firearm under federal law. The people adversely affected by this proposal will inevitably be people against whom the government lacks sufficient evidence to charge.

The fact that a person hasn’t been adjudicated as dangerous doesn’t preclude them from committing violence, of course. But just how much discretion should the president have in abolishing constitutional rights without charge or trial?

What has changed is the political climate in the interim.

The No-Guns List appears to have picked up some powerful allies on the right.   Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has expressed support for the idea, and is apparently lobbying the National Rifle Association to come along with him. 

The GOP and the NRA are generally regarded as the two primary bulwarks against misguided gun control proposals.  Adding their weight to this particular gun control proposal would bolster its legislative prospects immensely.

Even if, as some supporters have urged, the law requires hearings before a watchlisted person can be denied the right to bear arms, important questions remain.  What exactly does the state need to prove in order to take someone’s 2nd Amendment rights away?  What is the burden of proof?  Will judges allow the use of secret evidence, citing state secrecy concerns for refusing to disclose it?  Will the individual be entitled to legal representation?  Can he call and cross-examine witnesses? Can he appeal the ruling? Can he publicly discuss his case?

And those are just the legal concerns.  There are also pragmatic issues. What information does the FBI convey to the gun seller when someone on the list is denied?  Is the gun seller told that he’s got a terror suspect standing in his store?  What if the person actually is an aspiring terrorist under government surveillance?  Doesn’t this process inevitably tip him off? Would finding out that he’s on the government’s radar only encourage an aspiring terrorist to act quicker? Would it compromise legitimate surveillance operations?

The Boston bombers didn’t need guns. Nor did Timothy McVeigh or the 9/11 hijackers.  Giving terror suspects a sure-fire way to figure out whether they’re being surveilled seems like a large price to pay for what may be a non-existent benefit.

Omar Mateen passed background checks.  He passed training requirements. He had access to weapons as a security guard.  He wasn’t even on the terrorism watchlist. Nothing in this proposal, and nothing in any of the other gun control proposals this tragedy has spawned, would have kept firearms out of Omar Mateen’s hands.  The only way his rampage could have been prevented was for someone to kill him first. Unfortunately, laws that deny even sober people the right to carry weapons in establishments that serve alcohol meant that the law-abiding victims were sitting ducks.

Knee jerk reactions to horrible tragedies have proven to be a poor basis for good public policy.  We have institutions like due process precisely for times when emotions threaten to overrun safeguards that are just as important for protecting the innocent as the guilty.

It’s hard to imagine a graver violation of the spirit of the 2nd Amendment than a law allowing the President to declare anyone an enemy of the state without so much as a charge and subsequently bar them from exercising their 2nd Amendment rights.  But Republicans, lured from their stalwart support of gun rights by fears of terrorism, and Democrats, lured from their stalwart support of civil rights by their zeal for gun control, combined with an election cycle that has been defined by appeals to fear may be creating a perfect storm and a severe threat to liberty.

P.S. Two tweets this morning from sitting Congressmen highlight the divide.

Democratic Senator and gun control advocate Joe Manchin doesn’t inspire confidence when he says things like “due process is killing us.”

Luckily, not everyone in Congress agrees.