Remember all the calls by Democrats to ban people on the FBI’s terror watch list from buying guns? Well, it turns out that those proposals would have affected nearly 2 million people. Since the Transportation Security Administration announced in January that it was considering adding Jan. 6th Capitol protesters to the U.S. No Fly List, it is little wonder that the list has grown so long.
When the list first started being compiled in 2003, no one would have dreamed that so many names would end up on it. Even as late as 2009, there were 400,000 names — little more than a fifth of today’s number. The fact that almost 2 million people are on the terror watch list is a sad testament to the power that we give unnamed and unaccountable bureaucrats and should caution those who wish to use the list as a basis for far-reaching policies.
Being on the watch list doesn’t mean that you are guilty of anything. You can be on the list simply because the FBI wants to interview you about someone you might know. As of 2014, about 40 percent of people on the watch list were under “reasonable suspicion” despite having “no affiliation with known terrorist groups.” People can get nominated for the list by various government agencies, and no oversight agency exists to ensure that these additions are justified.
The Democrats want to strip all 2 million of these people of their Second Amendment rights. When he was president, Barack Obama called for a ban on gun sales to people on the watch list. Sen. Dianne Feinstein tried to add a ban as a budget amendment in 2016, but Republicans blocked it. Republicans had their version of the ban, but they at least required a court hearing before people were listed, which was unacceptable to Democrats.
Every time a person on the terror watch list attempts to buy a gun, the FBI is notified. The case receives further scrutiny if it raises other flags. Despite these obstacles, between 2004 and 2015, 91 percent of people on the terror watch list were able to buy a gun when they tried to — and rightly so. None of the over 2,000 people on the watch list who bought guns between February 2004 and December 2014 have been found guilty of committing a gun crime. So, what kind of problem were the proposed gun bans supposed to address?
The terror watch and “no-fly” lists affect many people who aren’t even on it. The “no-fly” list stopped the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) from flying on five occasions because someone with a similar name was on the list. Other prominent individuals, such as Congressman Tom McClintock (R-CA), have also run into this problem. Apparently, both had names similar to Irish Republican Army activists. Would such a clumsy system work any more precisely if paired with a gun ban? The results of the NICS background check system are telling.
Since the NICS background checks began in 1994, there have been 3.8 million initial denials. In 2017 alone, there were 112,000 initial denials for supposedly prohibited purchases. But, by June of the following year, the federal government had only prosecuted twelve people for trying to buy a gun. Almost all the cases were dropped upon further review. The simple reason for this is that they were mistakes — in other words, they weren’t real cases. People tend to have names similar to others in their racial groups, and the mistakes are primarily born by minorities through no fault of their own. The error rate for black males is three times their share of the population.
It is one thing to stop a felon from buying a gun. It is quite another to stop a law-abiding citizen from buying a gun just because his name is similar to a felon’s. Since no one has to be adjudicated by a court before being put on the terror watch list, the error rate for identifying potential terror threats would likely be much higher than the error rate for background checks on gun purchases.
Even if the list were limited to real terrorists and used to legally prohibit them from purchasing guns, the policy would be unlikely to stop them from getting weapons. Just because illegal drugs are illegal doesn’t mean that people can’t get them. It’s the same with guns. And, incidentally, drug gangs supply both drugs and guns. The terror watch list would likely only stop law-abiding people from purchasing guns.
People shouldn’t lose their right to protect their families because some unnamed bureaucrat put their name on a list for some unknown reason. With Democrats in complete control of Washington for the first time since they started pushing this legislation, we’d better keep an eye on what they might try to sneak into this year’s budget.
• John R. Lott is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center. He worked in the U.S. Department of Justice until January as senior adviser for research and statistics. Thomas Massie represents Kentucky’s Fourth Congressional District and is co-chair of the Second Amendment Caucus.
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