Americans were treated to a great act of political theater yesterday, as a group of Democrats, including civil rights hero John Lewis, lead a sit-in to call for gun control measures in the wake of the Orlando shooting. The Democrats disrupted official business for the day, and drew cheers from liberals for their sit-in.
There’s a big problem with the sit-in, though: one of the measures the Democrats want to pass would bar people on the no-fly or selectee lists–people suspected of having ties to terrorism–from buying guns.
At first glance, this seems logical. Who wants a terrorist to be able to buy a gun? But the reality is that these watchlists are deeply flawed, arbitrary and disproportionately impacts Muslims. People don’t know if they’re on it, there’s virtually no way to get off it, and it leads to consequences like not being able to fly or getting pulled aside for extra questioning at airports. It is also notoriously inaccurate. A 2009 Justice Department study found that a third of watchlisted names were on there because of outdated information.
The bill in question would effectively codify reliance on a list that many Democrats–including John Lewis himself–have criticized as violating civil liberties. In fact, Lewis himself was once on the no-fly list. The legislation would also do very little to curb gun violence in the U.S.
The bill that Democrats are advocating for has been nicknamed “no-fly, no-buy,” which would deny the sale of guns to people on the no-fly or selectee list.
These lists encompass thousands of people. The biggest U.S. terror watchlist is composed of hundreds of thousands of people. The exact number of people on the list is unknown, since it can change day to day. But in 2014, The Intercept reported that 680,000 people were on the Terrorist Screening Center Database list. The no-fly and selectee lists are smaller subsets of that large list. More than 40 percent of the people on the Terrorist Screening Center Database did not have a “recognized terrorist group affiliation,” The Intercept reported. Other bills proposed since the Orlando shooting have sought to use this hundreds of thousands-strong list as the basis for denying someone a gun.
Ramzi Kassem, an associate professor at CUNY School of Law and the founder and director of the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility Project, told me earlier in the year that the watchlists “are notoriously arbitrary and inaccurate. People are placed on these lists without ever being told why or given an opportunity to contest their listing. And the lists appear to focus disproportionately on individuals with Muslim-sounding names.”
Being included on the watchlist can also have consequences beyond not being able to fly. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of people on the no-fly list. When these Muslim-Americans spoke to the FBI about why they were on the list, agents pressured them to become informants to spy on their own communities. That was the price to pay to get off the no-fly database. And as I reported for The Intercept, the terror watchlist also shows up on criminal rap sheets, and has impacted people’s cases even if their alleged crimes have nothing to do with terrorism.
Democrats are pushing to bar people on the no-fly list from buying guns because of the Orlando attacks. But this bill would not have stopped Omar Mateen, the gunman, from buying the assault rifle he used to shoot up the Pulse nightclub. It is unclear if Mateen was on the no-fly list. And Mateen was taken off the larger federal watchlist in 2014.
That Democrats are now seeking to bolster an ineffective, arbitrary and racist watch list is no surprise. This is the party that, after the September 11 attacks, voted for the Patriot Act, the Iraq War, and expanded surveillance.
Nearly 15 years after September 11, the Democrats seem to have learned little. They are once again complicit in the expansion of the national security state. Their support for bills that rely on secret government watchlists is the latest example of a party all too eager to jettison civil liberties.