Well, well the LA Times’ published this interesting editorial today, where they wrote about the ongoing debate about barring people on the no-fly list (or the overall terrorist watch list maintained by the FBI) from buying firearms. Democrats want it; Republicans don’t; yet both parties share blame that this grossly unconstitutional anti-terror program has continued under the Bush and Obama presidencies. Unlike the paper’s rather inflammatory editorial the day of the San Bernardino shooting, which said that our “infatuation with guns” bordered on suicidal impulses, they were somewhat more measured in their response to this Democratic gun control initiative: yes, people on the watch lists should be able to buy guns.
One problem is that the people on the no-fly list (as well as the broader terror watch list from which it is drawn) have not been convicted of doing anything wrong. They are merely suspected of having terror connections. And the United States doesn't generally punish or penalize people unless and until they have been charged and convicted of a crime. In this case, the government would be infringing on a right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution — and yes, like it or not, the right to buy a gun is a constitutional right according to the U.S. Supreme Court.
How certain is it that the people on the two lists are dangerous? Well, we don't really know, because the no-fly-list and the broader watch list are government secrets. People are not notified when they are put on, nor why, and they usually don't discover they have been branded suspected terrorists until they try to travel somewhere.
But serious flaws in the list have been identified. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, which is suing the government over the no-fly list, the two lists include thousands of names that have been added in error, as well as the names of family members of suspected terrorists.
What's more, it's not clear how much impact Feinstein's law would have. The broader watch list, which is actually a database maintained by the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, apparently had about 480,000 names on it in 2011, according to the FBI, and it has since swelled to about 1.1 million names, according to the ACLU. Of those, the vast majority are noncitizens living overseas; the number of American citizens on the list is believed to be fewer than 10,000 people.
That's important because federal law already bars gun sales to most people who are not U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents or holders of valid visas, which means the vast majority of the people on the suspected terror list would already be barred from buying a firearm in the U.S. even without Feinstein's law. That leaves us with about 10,000 American citizens (and some legal residents) who, under the proposed law, would be barred from exercising a constitutional right. That gives us pause.
They also note that this wouldn’t have stopped Syed Farook or Tashfeen Malik since they weren’t on the list.
“Ending gun violence is critically important, but so is protecting basic civil liberties,” they wrote. “Although we agree to the ends here, we object to the means.” Nevertheless, they also noted that they disagree with the Supreme Court’s 2008 interpretation of the Second Amendment (Heller case), and that they support a ban on assault rifles. Yet, they also acknowledge that this is the law of the land, which should be cannibalized due to “mere suspicion.”
This is a somewhat more refreshing op-ed from the LA Times, noting the lack of due process that dot these secret government lists. Keeping guns out of the hands of terrorists is common sense, but so is honoring our constitutional right to be formally charged, know what those charges are, and then be acquitted–or convicted–of said crime.