Gun Control Bill: Proposal Would Bar Purchases By Those On Terror Watch Lists

It was only a matter of time before one side or the other attempted to tie in the gun control debate to the Boston Marathon bombing. Just as it has been invoked in the immigration debate, a connection between a gun control proposal and preventing the Boston Marathon bombings has been claimed up on Capitol Hill.

The claim is that current law allows for a loophole. Those who are on a terrorist watch list can purchase firearms as long as they do not have a criminal or mental health strike on their record. Thus Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who it is claimed was on a classified government watch list would not have been able to purchase the firearms that were utilized during the gun battle with Boston police that claimed the life of one officer. This new information may provide a brief second wind to the gun control debate in Washington. However given the way the terrorism watch list is handled in law enforcement, it could take away the rights of innocent civilians.

Tsarnaev was on the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, a list of about 550,00 suspected terrorists and their associates that is run by the National Counterterrorism Center. In addition to this list are several other terrorism lists. The Terrorist Screening Database is another that has about 400,000 names that have "reasonable suspicion" of terrorism ties according to authorizes.

Onto of that you have the Selectee List, a much more selective list of 14,000 people who have terrorist ties maintained by the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center. All people on this list must undergo secondary screening before boarding an airplane. And finally we have the No Fly List, 4,000 people suspected of being a grave threat to U.S. national security. This list is also maintained by the Terrorist Screen Center.

Senator Joe MancChin (D-W.Va.) said on Wednesday he that will consider reintroducing and expanding the expanded background check measure to make it soensure that people on government terrorist lists are forbidden to purchase firearms. MancChin did not specify which terror list of the above four he was referring to with regards to the legislation.

Terror lists have been criticized in the past for being incredibley easy to get on and difficult to remove yourself fromget removed from. A New York Times report on FBI watch lists revealed that the organization is allowed to keep people on their lists even if they have been acquitted of terrorism-related offenses or in the case of the charges being dropped. The American Civil Liberties Union has criticized such watch lists .in the past. In response to the attempted bombing of a plane by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in 2009, the FBI changed their criteria for going on such as list to one “credible” tip at a minimum in 2010.

The problems with implementing such a background check policies are numerous. Unlike a criminal conviction or a mental health order, being placed on a terrorist watch list usually happens without a person’s direct knowledge. And occasionally it is possible for two people with the same name to be mixed up in the government’s database, as happened to then 8-year-old Mikey Hicks, who has the same name as another suspected person on the watch list.

Closing this "loophole" simply grants law enforcement the ability to take away a right of the constitution with no ability of the suspected to be informed it until after the fact. This is an incredibly dangerous path to tread upon. Even though this measure carries the label of “tough on terrorism,” like many of the security measure passed in the wake of the September 11th attacks such as the USA PATRIOT Act, it treads the line between protection and civil liberties on a knife’s edge. 

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Gabriel Rodriguez

Gabriel Rodriguez is currently studying for a Masters in Applied Economics at Georgetown. He is a graduate of New College of Florida with a degree in Economics. He is interested in econometrics, statistical analysis, behavioral economics, and developmental economics.

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