The Second Amendment and the Terrorist Watch List

by Robert Scott

As we head into the political year 2016, we are certain to hear about many subjects; here are two of them. One will be called (depending on who is doing the speaking) either Sensible Gun Control (the speaker is a Liberal), or Second Amendment Rights (Conservative). The other will be called either Equal Protection Under the Law (Liberal), or Keeping America Safe from Terrorism (Conservative). There is one issue that encapsulates both: gun purchases and the FBI Terrorist Watch List. Listening to the various political candidates speak about the nexus of those two ideas, if they care to do so at all, will help you discern which viewpoint predominates in their thinking.

Here is the background. Because of its arguably too-broad sense of security, there are somewhere around ten thousand Americans on the FBI’s terrorist watch list. Am I on it, or are you? There is no easy way to tell, or to tell why you’re there if you are. Presumably most Americans suspected of being terrorists or with a history that implies they might become terrorists, are on that list. Presumably also, most people on the list are “suspects” only in the broadest of terms; they might be linked to terrorism in a “Six Degrees of Separation” kind of way, but likely are not threats to anybody’s security. They are being “watched” by the FBI and others, just in case. I’m guessing that most Conservatives would favor this, while most Liberals would not; the ACLU, for example, has cited what it calls “unconstitutionally vague” standards for inclusion on the list.

Here’s the thing. Firearms purchases are also monitored by the FBI. So, how many “suspects” on that list, have legally purchased firearms over, say, the last 10 years? The former chief of the FBI Terrorist Screening Center’s operations branch has said that a plausible number is over two thousand. About 20% of the people on the FBI Terrorist Watch List have legally purchased firearms here in the United States, over the past 10 years.

As part of the recent Omnibus funding bill that was passed just before Thanksgiving, several members of Congress called for a ban on weapons purchases by anyone on the watch list. But that ban was defeated in the Senate, so the issue is still out there with some in favor, others opposed. Those opposing the ban (Conservative) cite it as a gross violation of Second Amendment rights of those who are merely “suspected” of something, something of which they might very well be totally innocent. Those in favor of the ban (Liberal) ask why it should be easier to purchase a firearm than it is to buy an airplane ticket. If a prospective gun purchaser finds himself blocked from doing so because he or she is on some secret and questionable Government list, shouldn’t the right answer be to resolve that question first, and only then allow the purchase to go forward?

The issue boils down to this: which type of “mistake” should we as a society be first in line to condemn? Should we allow suspected terrorists to purchase arms and ammunition legally, because we’re not yet sure whether they really are terrorists? Or should we instead delay honest citizens from purchasing arms and ammunition until we can verify they are not terrorists?

It will be an interesting political year.