In the wake of the horrific shooting in Orlando in June, Congress briefly flirted with the idea of instituting some actual gun control in the United States. One of the things under consideration was a ban on gun purchasing for people on the terror watchlist, something that appealed to people of all political stripes. After all, surely we want to keep guns out of the hands of terrorists, at the very least! This is just common sense legislation that will make our country safer, right?
Except…not right. In fact, there’s a lot not right about this proposal, from a number of angles, and it was chilling to see so many people getting behind it. The eager support for it highlighted the fact that many people aren’t good at critical thinking, considering unintended consequences, and really evaluating legislation to look between the lines, not just at the surface.
Let’s start with whether it would accomplish its stated intent: Congress wanted to pass the ban to prevent terrible mass shootings, and it leveraged the fact that the Orlando killer referenced terrorist organisations. In strict point of fact, though, evidence rapidly emerged to suggest that actually this had less to do with terrorism than the guy’s personal issues, including internalised homophobia. His comments about terrorist organisations were conflicting and confused, and sounded more like excuses than actual loyalty pledges or what have you.
But, critics say, he was on the terror watchlist at some point, so he could have been barred from buying guns. Except that he was dropped from it, and would have been able to legally purchase weapons even had a watchlist ban been in place. More to the point, how many mass shootings in the United States have been conducted by people who were on the terror watchlist? It’s okay, I’ll wait while you go look.
Back so soon? Yes, that’s right: The vast majority of mass shootings (four or more people shot by own definition, four or more killed by another) take place in a domestic violence context, and have nothing to do with terrorism. If you really want to prevent mass shootings, try taking guns away from people with a history of domestic violence, like, oh, say, the Florida shooter. These incidents take place within the context of violent relationships, claiming the lives of intimate partners, children, and other family members.
In the case of statistically rare rampage violence (I know it feels like it happens all the time, but it pales in comparison with domestic violence-related killings), homegrown radicalism and right-wing extremism are often responsible, and these shootings often are acts of terror. However, their perpetrators aren’t on watchlists, because the US government is obsessed with ‘Islamic terrorism’ and has shown little to no interest in addressing the role of right-wing extremism rooted right here in the United States. The biggest threat to our safety isn’t coming from Muslims or the Middle East or people of colour. It’s coming from here, and it’s coming from white people, and it’s often coming from Christians.
So, using the terror watchlist as a screening tool wouldn’t be effective at mass shooting prevention.
It would, however, be highly useful for profiling. The process by which people end up on the watchlist is murky, and it’s difficult to request review and be taken off, no matter how much supporters tout the idea that there’s an easy legal recourse for being delisted if you’re not really a terrorist. (See also: Babies on the no-fly list, etc.) You’re saying that you want to use a secret government list to restrict activities for some people in the United States.
I am not an individual rights interpretationist — the Second Amendment was very clearly designed for militias in an era when law enforcement and the US military were limited and communities did need a way to organise and defend themselves, and it was also transparently written to protect the gun rights of slave patrols. The Founders didn’t think that everyone in the US needed to own an AR-15, or even a handgun. There’s some argument to be made for weapons used in rifle sports and hunting. Notably, nations with very strict gun control laws allow people to use an assortment of weapons at ranges for activities like target shooting, and some also allow people to own hunting rifles. Weapons designed for killing large numbers of people very quickly, though, don’t really have a place in society.
So I don’t think that using the terror watchlist would ‘restrict rights.’ But it would set an extremely dangerous and troubling precedent. We’re living in an era when people of colour and Muslims are already being profiled by law enforcement. Today, it might be gun sales, and many will say nothing — the greater good, if it stops even one shooting it’s worth it. But what about tomorrow and the day after? What else will people use the terror watchlist for? Profiling potential employees, maybe? Making decisions about who to rent to? These are the kinds of slippery slopes that endanger people and we’re setting up for a really terrible one here.
This is how real restrictions on civil liberties happen. Not all at once, but via a foot in the door, and that’s what this proposal would be. This is also something that Congress is well aware of — maybe conservatives opposed the proposal ‘because gun rights,’ but liberals weren’t just concerned about gun control. They also saw the potential for wider applications of restrictions based on the terror watchlist, and they took advantage of mass shootings as a pretext just like Congress used 11 September, 2001 to drive the PATRIOT Act through. This is one of the rare instances where I found myself standing with conservatives, albeit for very, very different reasons.
Photo: US Congress Building, Prameya Bhandari, Flickr