The Corner

Yes, We Should Prohibit Those on the Terror Watch List from Purchasing Guns

It’s rare that I take Barack Obama’s side against Charlie Cooke’s, but I’m inclined to agree with the president on the narrow merits of his new talking point about the terror watch list and gun buying. Never missing a chance to politicize these things, Obama said, “Those same people who we don’t allow to fly could go into a store right now in the U.S. and buy a firearm and there’s nothing that we can do to stop them.”

To which Charlie responded:

I have to say I’m with Obama here. This may be a red herring. It may also be part of some back-door scheme to go after guns, I have no idea. And if it is, opponents should make that case. But on the merits, I think that if you’re considered too big a terror threat to get on a plane, you should be considered too big a threat to buy a gun as well.

Charlie worries about the due-process rights of people on the terror watch list. Fair enough. But it’s worth noting that such rights are folded, bent, and mutilated when it comes to air travel already. We’re searched without probable cause. We’re denied the right to carry firearms, etc. We tolerate these, and other indignities, because there’s a compelling state interest to protect the flying public.

It’s absolutely true that the terror watch list makes mistakes. Our friend Steve Hayes was on it for a while (a fact that still causes me to chuckle). But we still tolerate the existence of a terror watch list, even though it’s arguably pretty rough on our constitutional rights as well. I don’t think that being on a terror watch list should empower the state to take away the guns you may already own. And if the list is an overbroad mess, let’s fix the list. But putting a red flag on new gun purchases doesn’t seem to me to be wildly unreasonable either.

If I’m missing something — and I probably am — I await correction.


Update: I said if I was missing something I was open to correction — and I did miss something so I am correcting. I conflated in my mind (and my post) the Terror Watch List with the no-fly list. These are different things. The TWL is a much bigger, messier, thing. So I think I’d want to think and read up more before agreeing that it should be a no-gun-buying list as well. But on the basic principle I was — messily — addressing, I’m going to hold my ground. I think if the government has good cause to bar you from exercising your right to travel — at least in the form of air travel — it probably has good cause to put a hold on your gun buying. The key phrase is “good cause.” You should also be allowed to appeal the decision in a clear, inexpensive and open process. I don’t think the Feds should have the plenary and arbitrary power to say “you can’t buy a gun” for no good reason.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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