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Friday, October 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

No-fly, terror watch lists unsuitable for barring gun sales

By Mike Hashimoto Dallas Morning News

When well-meaning people get together to thrash out a grave national issue, expect them to circle back to a couple of premises:

First, let’s grab the “low-hanging fruit,” that supposedly simple starting point when apples or apricots are within easy reach.

Second, “It stands to reason.” As in, “It stands to reason that even well-meaning people will attempt to cram each new event into an existing worldview.” Short translation: It’s common sense, if only you had some.

So, guns in America.

Firearms work perfectly into our two premises, at least as seen by those who believe that each new mass shooting, however tragic on its face, is also reason to revisit ideas ranging from ineffective to useless. “Doing nothing is not an option,” unless doing something is worse.

One low fruit is the idea of using government databases like the no-fly list or terrorist watch list to determine who can buy firearms legally. Doesn’t it just stand to reason? Ask President Barack Obama:

“To begin with, Congress should act to make sure no one on a no-fly list is able to buy a gun. What could possibly be the argument for allowing a terrorist suspect to buy a semi-automatic weapon? This is a matter of national security.”

That was late last year, after a terrorist couple shot up a community center in San Bernardino, California. Obama failed then but has beaten on – before and after the nightclub massacre last weekend in Orlando, Florida – joined by Democrats in Congress and now his presumptive successor, nominee Hillary Clinton.

And why not? A person on the no-fly list is there for a reason. And that reason is, well, there must be a reason. Except that no one short of a select few in the federal government could tell you, if you also wanted them to kill you first. In other words, it’s a secret.

In addition to not knowing why, we don’t know how. Google until your eyes cross, and you won’t find the standards for inclusion onto the so-called no-fly list. Or the list itself, past or present. If your name is on it, you find out when it comes time to visit Grandma.

Nor are the people on the list, about 50,000 today, facing charges for terrorism – or anything else, as far as anyone knows. The government says they are dangerous enough to block from a seat in coach but not so dangerous that they can’t sit by us at a high school football game.

Do not confuse the no-fly list with the broader terror watch list, actually a database maintained by the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center. This had about 480,000 names on it in 2011, according to the FBI, and more than 1 million today, according to the ACLU. If it helps you sleep, the number of U.S. citizens on the list is vanishingly small, fewer than 10,000; the rest are believed to be noncitizens living in noncitizen-type places.

Omar Mateen, the Orlando gunman, was taken off that list after the FBI twice closed investigations into him. So his ability to legally buy the weapons he used to kill 49 people and wound 53 still would not have been affected.

More urgently, to the president’s question, who knows whether any of these supposed terrorism suspects actually belongs on any list?

Due process? Transparency? Is this the America where you want to live, when any secret and unproven suspicion could cost you a constitutional right?

How does this sound?

Feds: “We suspect you of associating with terrorists.”

You: “Nope, not me.”

Feds: “Be that as it may, we still suspect you. If we could tell you why you were on the list, we’d have to admit that you’re on the list. And the list is secret. So, no gun for you. And take a bus maybe.”

Rewriting the Second Amendment, as enticing as that might sound, is a fool’s errand. (You know, it stands to reason.) It would be so much simpler, as Obama says, to have Congress just add these lists to the categories of exclusion, like being a convict, fugitive, mental defective or domestic abuser.

Here’s the irony: Those evil gun nuts at the National Rifle Association, who supposedly dictate all gun policy to Congress, are ready and willing to compromise. Did you know?

“The NRA believes that terrorists should not be allowed to purchase or possess firearms, period,” the group said in a statement. “Anyone on a terror watch list who tries to buy a gun should be thoroughly investigated by the FBI and the sale delayed while the investigation is ongoing.

“If an investigation uncovers evidence of terrorist activity or involvement, the government should be allowed to immediately go to court, block the sale, and arrest the terrorist.”

Shazam, low-hanging fruit! More from the NRA:

“At the same time, due process protections should be put in place that allow law-abiding Americans who are wrongly put on a watch list to be removed.”

So the government also would have to inform you that you are on a suspect list and provide a way to argue yourself off. It stands to reason that this would be a fair and reasonable middle ground, right? Now that’s doing something.

Mike Hashimoto is a member of the editorial board of the Dallas Morning News.

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