Monday, December 7, 2015

The liberal case for allowing suspected terrorists to buy guns

Since the atrocities in Paris, many Senate Republicans had been arguing that the threat of terrorism was so severe, the U.S. could not afford to take in Syrian refugees. And yet, on Thursday, these same lawmakers voted down a bill that would have prohibited anyone on the federal government's terror watch list from purchasing firearms in the United States. ...

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, and the New York Times editorial board all railed against the GOP’s opposition to the measure. But before self-identified progressives join that chorus, they should consider this: A bill that bars suspected terrorists from buying guns is a bill that gives the White House the unilateral authority to rescind the constitutional rights of American citizens.

The terror watch list was one of the many Orwellian pre-crime initiatives adopted in the wake of 9/11. Last year, the Intercept published a 2013 document outlining the Obama administration’s criteria for labeling an individual a suspected terrorist. Those official guidelines stipulated that neither “concrete facts” nor “irrefutable evidence” were required to make that designation. That same evidentiary standard is applied to the smaller subset of individuals assigned to the No Fly List.

Some liberals may feel that the threat of terrorism justifies this dramatic exercise of state power. But it’s worth remembering that we live in a country that holds elections every four years and that, for the moment, Donald Trump has a non-zero chance of becoming our next president. The Obama administration considers the Black Lives Matter movement enough of a national-security threat to put its protesters under the surveillance of Homeland Security. Is it inconceivable that an administration less sympathetic to the movement’s goals might use its counterterrorism authority to inhibit the physical movement of its leading activists? Or that a candidate who has suggested establishing a database of all American Muslims might use the terror watch list in an oppressive manner?

Perhaps a liberal can oppose the lax criteria of the terror watch list and still wish to see it used as a tool for restricting the sale of guns. ...

But the problem with this reasoning is that, however unfortunately, gun ownership is currently construed as a constitutionally protected right. Thus, granting the executive branch the authority to unilaterally deny American citizens access to firearms would actually undermine our nation’s civil liberties more than the No Fly List ever could.

If the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of such an authority, it would create a precedent for the executive branch to rescind other protected rights in the name of preventing terrorism.

If that threat seems small and theoretical compared to the peril of our country’s daily gun violence, the same can be said about the threat posed by suspected terrorists purchasing firearms.

Yes, in the last ten years, 2,000 terror suspects legally purchased guns in the United States. But those 2,000 terror suspects account for roughly zero percent of American gun deaths over that period.
--Eric Levitz, New York, on the wrong way to prevent terrorist violence