NSA PRISM Program: GOP Senators Who Love the Second Amendment Aren't Always Crazy About the Fourth

Many senators who voted against tougher background checks for gun purchases on the grounds that was a restriction of the Second Amendment rights of Americans seem to think that when it comes to NSA intelligence-gathering to combat terrorism, which kills tens of thousands fewer Americans a year than gun violence, the Fourth Amendment rights of Americans should take a back seat to security.

Senators who overwhelmingly opposed the Manchin-Toomey background check bill in April — mostly Republicans — are dismissing the comparisons between the gun-control bill and the PATRIOT Act, which authorized the National Security Agency’s controversial intelligence-gathering programs.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said of the gun control bill: "This bill is a clear overreach that will predominantly punish and harass our neighbors, friends, and family.” However, McConnell concluded that the NSA programs were "lawful programs created to protect the American people." 

McConnell argues that requiring background checks, while not restricting the ability of someone to own a gun, is more of an infringement on the Second Amendment than the NSA surveillance programs that sweep up data on phone calls and internet activities are to the Fourth Amendment. But that just isn’t true.

When it comes to background checks, even Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) admitted, “Candidly… I don't consider criminal background checks to be gun control." Toomey, who has a lifetime A rating from the National Rifle Association, said background checks were “just common sense.”

And in a great post titled, “Are They Allowed to Do That? A Breakdown of Selected Government Surveillance Programs,” the NYU Brennan Center for Justice concludes that the NSA PRISM program does not “comport with the Fourth Amendment, which requires the government to obtain a warrant for much of the information about U.S. persons that is being 'inadvertently' collected.”

Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) made similar arguments, but added that the mental health side of shooters made them different from what I assume he believes to be "sane"terrorists. "Gun background checks — I believe that's the first big step of gun control," Shelby said, arguing that he was "against anything tinkering with" the Bill of Rights. “When a group of people who want to destroy our way of life pick up AK-47s and try to get weapons of mass destruction, that's a different problem than someone who's mentally disturbed and goes into a school.”

On the left, senators have both supported background checks and the NSA programs, while more libertarian conservatives such as Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) are taking a consistent stand against both background checks and the NSA data mining programs.

"What we see with the background checks is an elaboration of what's been done by NSA," said Sen. Enzi. "It makes it easier for NSA. So yes, I'm against background checks, especially the overreach that was in there. I do not support the NSA program. I'm concerned about the violation of privacy."

While the NSA programs and backgrounds checks are admittedly different in nature, when the two have similar effects on civil liberties and a senator opposes one and not the other, the appearance of hypocrisy is unavoidable. Whether in support or opposition to both the NSA programs and background checks, only by treating civil liberties equally in every case can we stay true to the Bill of Rights.

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Maxime Fischer-Zernin

Studying Political Science at Duke University (T. '15). His interests lie primarily in American national security and foreign policy. He is currently an Editor-at-Large for the Duke Political Review, and is a contributor for PolicyMic.com.

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