There has been a lot of chatter in the last couple days about individuals on the “Terrorist Screening Database” (or simply “Terrorist Watchlist”) being able to purchase firearms in the United States. The usual suspects from Senator Harry Reid to activist news organizations have begun a campaign for banning individuals on this list from being able to own firearms, and while there seems to be support for that idea from the usual gun control activists the reality of the situation is that it is an amazingly dangerous precedent to set using a hilariously awful and unreliable database.
First things first, what exactly is this “Terrorist Screening Database?” According to Wikipedia, the database is a combined effort of multiple government agencies to identify both known and suspected terrorists. On the surface that sounds like a pretty solid list of people who probably shouldn’t own a gun, but the issue is that the rules for being added to this ever growing list are amazingly loose and the database has been proven to be remarkably unreliable.
A report published by The Intercept details exactly the requirements for being added to the list, and they are remarkably low. Back in 2010 the New York Times reported on one woman whose life had been ruined by being placed on the terrorist watchlist in error. They looked into the ways that people are added to the list and found that there was a very low bar to being added.
The watch list is actually a succession of lists, beginning with the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, a centralized database of potential suspects. Mr. Travers said that about 10,000 names come in daily through intelligence reports, but that a large percentage are dismissed because they are based on “some combination of circular reporting, poison pens, mistaken identities, lies and so forth.”
The fact that a “large percentage” of names which are submitted to the watchlist are based on “lies and so forth” should be particularly disturbing. It shows that there doesn’t actually need to be any factual evidence in order to have your name submitted for addition to the database. As a result the database has been proven to be remarkably unreliable. A report by the OIG conducted in 2007 found that roughly 38% of the records were inaccurate.
The database is so unreliable and inaccurate that an 8 year old boy was prohibited from boarding an airplane because his name was on that list.
Gun control activists don’t seem to have a problem with that inaccuracy, but gun owners certainly do. The cold hard truth is that American citizens have a Constitutionally protected right to buy and shoot guns, and organizations like the NRA exist to safeguard that right. The fear among gun owners is that not only could the watchlist erroneously stop law abiding Americans from purchasing firearms, but that it could be abused by gun control activists to target individual gun owners and keep them from practicing their Constitutionally protected activity. That first New York Times article provides a perfect example of how a single false report can ruin someone’s life.
In May 2006, a co-worker told the state police that Mr. Scherfen had retrofitted the family car to carry bombs, court records show. (He said he had simply removed a broken seat from his old Mazda.) Not long after, Mr. Scherfen and Ms. Tureen began being detained at airports, jeopardizing his job.
One single person’s false report led to Mr. Scherfen being listed on the terrorist watchlist. Much the same way, gun owners are concerned that their political opponents could exploit that same process to add them to the list as well. We don’t have to imagine a hypothetical situation where that might happen — the New York Times has illustrated a perfect example of exactly that situation actually happening in real life.
Another complicating factor is the increasingly vitriolic rhetoric coming from the Democratic party. During the October Democratic primary debate, Hillary Clinton proclaimed that the NRA and the Republican Party were “the enemy.” The New York Daily News has gone one step further, continuously proclaiming that the National Rifle Association should be declared a terrorist organization. There’s even an online petition to make that happen. The concern among gun owners (including the five million Americans who are NRA members) is that the simple act of owning a firearm and belonging to a gun rights advocacy organization could become sufficient cause for being proclaimed a “domestic terrorist” and therefore banned from future firearms purchases.
For those who want to think a little further down that dark path, there are zero protections in place to keep the “terrorist watchlist” from being abused. Left leaning publications such as the Daily Kos, the Huffington post, and even the New York Times have started openly calling fro the complete ban and confiscation of certain firearms in the United States. With no due process protections in place there’s nothing to keep an administration Hell-bent on gun control from adding all Americans to the list as an end run around the Second Amendment.
The root cause of the problem is that the “terrorist watchlist” isn’t actually a list of terrorists — it’s a list of people that might possibly be terrorists, of which over a third are inaccurate entries. There’s no great burden of proof required to be added to the list and once added it is nearly impossible to get removed.
While the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to own a gun, there’s another amendment at work here as well: the fifth amendment guarantee to due process. The Constitution demands that no American be deprived of their rights without due process, yet activists who want to use this inaccurate and secret list to deprive people of their right to own firearms are demanding that we do exactly that. Even the ACLU takes offense to that idea.
“Instead of a watchlist limited to actual, known terrorists, the government has built a vast system based on the unproven and flawed premise that it can predict if a person will commit a terrorist act in the future,” says Hina Shamsi, the head of the ACLU’s National Security Project. “On that dangerous theory, the government is secretly blacklisting people as suspected terrorists and giving them the impossible task of proving themselves innocent of a threat they haven’t carried out.”
While Harry Reid might demonize the NRA for their opposition to using the terrorist watchlist to block people from buying guns, the reality of the situation is that the NRA is right. Like it or not, the ability to purchase a firearm is a right protected by the U.S. Constitution and the Supreme Court. Senator Reid is demanding that we use a secret list to deny people their Constitutionally protected rights — one that has no due process, no oversight, and no clear way to clear your name. Even the New York Times has illustrated exactly how broken the system has become. I’m sure that if Senator Reid were demanding that people on the terrorist watchlist be denied the ability to vote he wouldn’t be getting the same support among Democrats, but he would be equally wrong as he is in this situation.
Let’s walk a little further down that garden path to Hell. It isn’t hard to imagine that over the next few years there will be more of these “lone wolf” terrorist attacks and the public will increasingly demand that the government “do something” to combat the threat. Is it that much of a leap to think that there might come a day when the call goes up to ban anyone on the “terrorist watchlist” from enjoying other civil rights, such as voting? “We need to keep these terrorists from influencing American politics! We need to close the terror gap!” And without any protections whatsoever on who is added to the list, with the increased rhetoric about illegal immigration and certain religious groups, it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario where Americans of a certain religion could find themselves suddenly having their civil rights revoked one “terror gap” at a time.
So why do gun control activists continue to push for this list — dangerously inaccurate and laughably easy to be listed even if you’re completely innocent — to be used to block gun purchases? The simple reason is that they care more about the need to “do something” to “feel safer” than protecting the rights of American citizens. Time and again we have seen that the common belief among gun control activists is that the fewer guns “on the street” the better the situation. That’s the reason for gun buybacks, continued restrictions on firearms ownership, and the ever increasing “universal background check” proposals which do more to restrict firearms ownership than to reduce crime. The goal seems to be to simply stop people from buying guns, no matter how that happens.
There’s a real reason why the NRA is blocking the idea of using the “terrorist watchlist” to police gun sales, and it’s a damn good one at that. Senator Harry Reid is demanding that we start implementing secret lists to prohibit American citizens from exercising their Constitutionally protected rights. He is clamoring for the destruction of the very freedoms that made America great. If opposition to that kind of insanity constitutes terrorism then sign me up.