The Corner

Politics & Policy

The No-Fly List Argument That Never Flies

Rifles are displayed for sale at the Guntoberfest gun show in Oaks, Pennsylvania (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Earlier today I appeared on HLN with Bill Press, who trotted out the tired argument, “the NRA won’t even allow restrictions on gun sales to people on the no-fly list.”

I understated it in my response: there are 1.6 million people on the no-fly list as of February 2017; U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents account for approximately 16,000 of the total. The Department of Homeland Security explains that “the [Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment] and many downstream screening systems are name-based, meaning that people with names similar to those in the database may be stopped for additional screening by TSA or at a port of entry.” In other words, if a terrorist has the same name as you, you can end up on the list.

In short, people like Bill Press want to implement a system where you are barred from buying a gun if you have the same name as a terrorist.

The late senator Ted Kennedy was selected for the TSA list for additional screening. As he lamented in a 2004 interview, “It happened three more times and finally Secretary Ridge called to apologize on it. It happened even after he called to apologize because they couldn’t — my name was on the list at the airports and with the airlines and the Homeland Security. He couldn’t get my name off the list for a period of weeks.”

If one of the most powerful senators in the country, with access to the TSA Secretary himself, can end up on this list and have great difficulty getting off of it, imagine what it’s like for a Paterson father or a fired airport shuttle employee.

The no-fly list and additional screening lists are not like convictions in court or being declared mentally impaired by the government. There is no independent or third-party review; no equivalent of a defense attorney to argue on your behalf that you don’t belong on the list. Oftentimes people are added to the list and ever know it until they show up at the airport. The government is rarely willing to say why a person is on the list, citing national security. For a long time there was no appeals process; now there is a slow and ardulous one.

(Separately, the effectiveness of the list is debatable: “Omar Mateen had been on the terrorist watch list for 10 months, but was taken off before he killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June 2016.” Few of the perpetrators of recent terrorist attacks were on the no-fly list, either.)

If we could be certain that everyone on the no-fly list was a genuine threat to others, this would be a different debate. But the seemingly-innocuous proposal of banning gun sales to those on the no-fly list would allow the government to deny you Constitutional rights based upon a secret process with little or no independent review of those decisions.

Folks like Press and other progressives would never accept an attitude of, “well, the government has your name on a list, so you must have done something to justify that, so we’re going to take away your rights” in any other circumstance.

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