President Obama and other opponents of gun rights have seized upon the San Bernardino terrorist attack as a basis to justify more misguided gun control laws. In particular, it is being argued that those on the Terrorism Watch List should be denied the ability to purchase a gun. Such a proposal is ineffective as a means of trying to prevent terrorism, and is grossly unconstitutional and un-American.
Background on the Terrorism Watch List
Thanks to leaked classified documents, court records, and other government sources we can build a picture of the Terrorism Watch List as it exists today. About 900 names per day are added to the Terrorism Watch List, which currently contains about 700,000 names (a 10-fold increase since George W. Bush left office). By the government’s own admission in classified documents that have been leaked, over 280,000 people on that list have “no recognized terrorist group affiliation.” The process for adding a person to the list is haphazard at best, with information coming from unreliable sources with little to no factual basis to justify the addition. The list itself is secret, and people on the list are afforded no ability to challenge their presence on the list aside from filing a lawsuit or begging the FBI to remove them (which doesn’t work very well). Since the Terrorism Watch List is a list of names, many people who share the same name with a person on the list can and are considered part of that list too. An incredibly detailed article on the folly of the Terrorism Watch List can be read here.
Why the Terrorism Watch List shouldn’t be used to deny gun rights
Firstly, as a practical matter, the presence of a person’s name on the Terrorism Watch List is a terrible indicator as to whether a person is a terrorist. That much should be obvious, given the process through which names are added, as well as the sheer size of the list. If there truly were as many terrorists as the Terrorism Watch List suggests, then it wouldn’t be safe for anyone to leave home in the morning. Instead, the vast majority of people who have been added to the Terrorism Watch List are not criminals or terrorists.
Secondly, even if everyone on the Terrorism Watch List were terrorists who wished to use a gun to commit an act of terrorism, keeping them from legally buying a gun would accomplish nothing. That is because a terrorist who wishes to kill as many innocent people as possible before being “martyred” will gladly violate gun control laws. The Paris terrorist attackers used illegally obtained machine guns in their killing spree, just as other criminals smuggle guns, steal guns from the police, or manufacture illegal guns themselves. In the case of the San Bernardino terrorists, they acquired their rifles from a friend. It is true that the female attacker in San Bernardino lawfully purchased handguns on her own, but she wasn’t on the terrorist watch list anyway – despite having posted pro-jihad messages on social media years ago. Indeed, the fact that she was able to obtain a visa to come the USA after doing so speaks volumes about the effectiveness of our government’s screening process, and suggests we shouldn’t put too much stock in a government assertion that someone is or is not a terrorist.
Most importantly of all, gun ownership is a constitutional right. If the government wishes to deny someone a right, that denial must be done through due process of law. Just as it would be unconstitutional to deny a person the right to vote, or the right to free speech, or the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure just because the FBI put their name on a list, it is just as unconstitutional to deny a person their 2nd Amendment rights because their name is on such a list. If a person is really a terrorist then the government should charge them with a crime, have them arrested, present the matter in court, obtain a conviction, and imprison the person so that society is protected. What it should not do is have a secret list to which a person’s name is added without them even knowing about it until they try to board a commercial flight. President Obama, as a former constitutional law professor, should and must know that.
The Terrorism Watch List is about as flawed of a government program as has ever existed. Indeed, the fact that the ACLU and NRA are both in agreement as to how terrible the Terrorism Watch List is speaks volumes. It has failed to catch the actual terrorists, while sweeping up hundreds of thousands of innocent people in its dragnet. It should not be used to deny a person the ability to do anything – much less the ability to exercise a fundamental constitutional right like keeping and bearing arms.