I’ve never been a fan of the National Rifle Association. To my mind, the NRA has been one of the more dishonest, manipulative and even dangerous lobbying groups in the country.
But on the matter of the government’s “terrorist watch list,” I’m with the NRA all the way.
According to the New York Times, the Government Accountability Office will release a study this week reporting that “people on the government’s terrorist watch list tried to buy guns nearly 1,000 times in the last five years, and federal authorities cleared the purchases 9 times out of 10 because they had no legal way to stop them.”
At first glance, that seems an egregious oversight. Common sense says that suspected terrorists should not be allowed to buy firearms. As the Times reports, one person on the watch list “was able to buy more than 50 pounds of explosives,” which seems shocking. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat from New Jersey, plans to introduce legislation giving the federal government the power to block such sales.
The NRA of course opposes the bill, and I think for good reason.
The problem is the size of the “watch list” and the poorly defined standards for putting and keeping someone in that category. Although the list is secret, the Justice Department has acknowledged that it has grown to more than a million names representing around 400,000 individuals. The list — compiled and operated by the FBI — includes names recommended by a variety of federal, state, local, and international agencies.
In a report released in May, the Justice Department inspector general found that more than a third of the almost 69,000 names added to the list just by the FBI should not have been included. (Other agencies are probably even less careful about nominating people to the list.) The FBI included names involved in cases that had been closed, cases had nothing to do with terrorism and individuals who were supposed to have been removed from the list but were not.
“In one instance, we identified a former subject who remained watchlisted for
nearly 5 years after the case had been closed,” the inspector general found.
That’s in stark contrast to claims on the website of the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center that “only individuals who are known or appropriately suspected to be or have been engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism are included in the TSDB.”
Given the sloppiness of record-keeping and the FBI’s lax approach to limiting the list to those realistically suspected of terrorist involvement, it would be unfair to use the watch list to deny people their civil liberties. And in this country, according to the courts and current judicial interpretation, the right to buy a gun is a civil liberty.