Preventing People on the "No Fly" List from Buying Guns Sounds Good in Theory, But It's More Complicated Than That

Here's the thing: "No fly, no buy" represents a colossal breach of civil rights, and no, I'm not talking about the Second Amendment.
Publish date:
June 27, 2016
politics, gun control, Congress

Congressional Democrats appear to be in a state of revolt, between the filibuster (not technically a filibuster, but close enough) in the Senate and the House sit-in over gun legislation. I feel for Democrats who have reached the breaking point in their frustration with uncooperative Republicans, and I wanted to celebrate their stand against obstructionism, but I had some reservations, and "no fly, no buy" accounted for almost all of them.

Of the myriad of gun control proposals under discussion right now, comprehensive background checks and funding gun violence research are both obvious, intuitive, and critical. Let's eradicate the gun show loophole, ensure that things like a history of domestic violence convictions are factored into background checks, and find out more about the social factors that drive gun violence.

"No fly, no buy," however, is a perilous and fraught idea, and the political machinations behind the proposal reveal some complicated things about both Congress and the American people.

First: You need to understand that this bill was designed to fail.

The Democrats deliberately wrote and promoted terrible legislation with an eye to making Republicans look as bad as possible so they'd have a powerful bargaining chip. When Republicans reject "no fly, no buy," Democrats can use it to say that Republicans want terrorists to be able to buy guns, and that doesn't carry well with conservatives or liberals. By forcing Republicans to take a stance on the subject, Democrats created a situation that allowed them to complain about the utter unreasonableness of the GOP in a way they thought would be universally accessible: "See, the Republicans are so opposed to sensible gun legislation that they don't even vote to keep guns out of the hands of terrorists!"

However, designed to fail though it may have been, it certainly captured the attention of the public, and many people across the political spectrum were thrilled at the idea of "no fly, no buy." It sounds like such a good idea, right? We definitely don't want terrorists buying guns, because that would be bad.

Here's the thing, though: "No fly, no buy" represents a colossal breach of civil rights, and no, I'm not talking about the Second Amendment.

It's based on two extremely secretive lists: The infamous "no fly" list, and the lesser-known selectee list. People on the no fly list cannot purchase plane tickets at all, period. Selectees can certainly book tickets, but they'll be subjected to enhanced screening at the airport.

The criteria for how people end up on either list are totally unclear, but research does indicate that, perhaps unsurprisingly, they are highly racialized. While we don't know exactly who is on either list, anecdotal evidence suggests that it's mostly Muslims of Middle Eastern descent.

Despite the fact that our biggest terror threat right now is homegrown, and committed by white people, the government persists in profiling people who look like the attackers of September 11, 2001.

Just this weekend, though, a white pride rally in Sacramento erupted in violence, leading to a "mass casualty event." It should have served as a reminder that the vast majority of rampage shootings in this country are committed by white right-wing extremists. We have a terrorism problem, all right, but it's growing in our own back yard. (And we're even exporting it, as seen in the brutal murder of Jo Cox in Britain — if anything, other countries should probably be profiling some of us.)

We don't know how people get onto these lists, and getting delisted is a nightmare. Reams of supporting documentation, hours of phone calls and interviews, endless runaround from officials, and pleas to everyone from your Congressperson to your employer for help might get you taken off the list.

You can see why the ACLU has expressed grave concerns about applying the no fly and selectee lists to anything, including air travel. While the organization emphatically agrees that we need to regulate guns more effectively, it argues that this isn't the way to do it. Unsurprisingly, the NRA also opposes the legislation, but in this case, it actually has a really sound reason for doing so. This isn't a question of how you interpret the Second Amendment, but how you interpret civil rights and civil liberties.

Today it might be guns, and lots of liberals are on board with finding as many ways to keep guns out of circulation as possible. But the ones who spoke up in support of "no fly, no buy" might want to think twice about it, because tomorrow, who knows what it might be: Access to federal student aid? Being able to get a driver's license? Getting a passport?

What about when that information goes into a background check system that's notoriously porous, allowing not just gun dealers but prospective employers, financial institutions, and landlords to see that you've been flagged?

Once legislation like this passes, as part of the larger framework of security theater in the United States, it creates a slippery slope.

Remember after September 11, 2001, when Congress rushed to push the PATRIOT Act through, with many liberals at the time supporting it? We're still living with the legacies of the erosion of civil liberties that PATRIOT created, just as we're going barefoot at the airport because one guy one time tried to bomb a plane with his shoes. The government has succeeded in creating a security culture in the United States in which people largely accept restrictions on their civil liberties that would have been considered completely untenable 20 years ago.

The practice of using a top-secret list to restrict freedom of movement in the United States is already deeply troubling. The lack of a clearly outlined and practicable appeals process is unacceptable. Yet, this list is what lots of people were championing — many invoking Orlando, an event that affected mostly people of color, like those who are already profiled by law enforcement, in the process. Yet, what happened in Orlando wouldn't have been prevented with "no fly, no buy," because the perpetrator wasn't on a watchlist at the time he bought his weapons.

This legislation was designed as a political stunt, and no one expected it to pass. Most Democrats would admit that it's a bad bill, as long as they're behind closed doors. The problem is that many members of the public didn't realize that, and they enthusiastically supported it despite its implications.

We desperately need sensible gun legislation in this country, but leveraging vague fears about terrorists is a pretty dreadful way to do it.