It’s hard to think of an organization that embodies mainstream liberalism better than the American Civil Liberties Union does. So to a casual political observer, it may come as something of a surprise that the ACLU is strictly opposed to the compromise gun-control measure under consideration by the Senate, a version of which House Democrats have recently been loudly demanding a vote on throughout their sit-in on the House floor.
The bill under consideration by the Senate, formally called Collins Amendment No. 4814, would restrict gun purchases of individuals on the no-fly list and selectee list. It has a narrower scope than Senator Dianne Feinstein’s bill that the Senate voted down earlier this week; Feinstein would have banned gun purchases to all people who had been on the terrorist watch list at any point in the last five years. Conservatives have opposed both the Feinstein bill and the Collins compromise on due-process grounds, arguing that using secret lists to abrogate Second Amendment rights is a blatant violation of the right to due process as enshrined in the Fifth Amendment.
The ACLU’s stance is much the same. True to its name, the organization stated its opposition in civil-liberties terms in a letter to senators yesterday: “[The Collins Amendment] uses the error-prone and unfair watchlist system, along with vague and overbroad terms, as a predicate for a proceeding to deny a firearms permit. . . . Relying on these lists would open the door to arbitrary and discriminatory government action.” It reads like something out of a Republican playbook, but it’s not; instead, it’s an expression of liberal fears of government overreach and arbitrary denial of individual rights.
Though the ACLU finds itself on the same side of this issue as the NRA, this is not a reflection of some rightward shift in the ACLU’s orientation; the ACLU has, instead, remained exactly where it’s always been. Rather, it’s the Democrats who have taken on a more radical stance — reversing the rhetoric over the government’s denial of rights they espoused during the Bush years. The situation in Congress is almost surreal: John Lewis, the legendary and much-feted civil-rights activist, pitted against the country’s foremost civil-liberties advocacy organization.
As a hypothetical: Let’s imagine it’s 2005, and George W. Bush has just been reelected as president. There has just been a terrorist attack on American soil similar to the Orlando shooting. He proposes — nay, demands from Congress — that, in the interests of protecting the nation against terrorist attacks, the right to own a gun be denied based on the FBI’s placing of individuals on a secret list that contains the names of many people — especially people of color — who are guilty merely of associating with people the FBI deems suspect. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a situation in which Democrats would support this measure.
So why do congressional Democrats currently find themselves across the partisan divide from their old ally, the ACLU? A lot of it has to do, I think, with the fact that the man occupying the Oval Office is a Democrat, and Hillary Clinton, and not Donald Trump, will likely win in November. Voting to deny rights based on secret lists sounds good when you’re the ones making the secret lists. But the ACLU’s fierce stance against the Collins Amendment — indeed, against any use of the watch list and no-fly lists to deny Second Amendment rights — should remind us that a principled liberal stance would oppose the bills now so ardently touted by the Democrats.