Liberals, Conservatives Agree on Watchlist Danger

What a remarkable sentence to write: liberals and conservatives actually agree on something.

Currently, Democrats in Congress are staging a sit-in to push for gun policy reforms, such as expanding background checks for gun buyers to cover the large percentage of sales that don’t include one and banning people on terror watchlists, like the no-fly list, from purchasing guns. The first policy is enormously popular among the citizenry: some 90% of Americans favor universal background checks (including 85% of gun owners). The second policy also has mass support: about 85% of Americans think banning individuals on federal watchlists from buying firearms is a proper regulation.

Yet there also exists common ground among liberals and conservatives concerned with the watchlists themselves. Take Gawker — no conservative enclave — which opined that “The Democrats Are Boldly Fighting For a Bad, Stupid Bill”:

The no-fly list is a civil rights disaster by every conceivable standard. It is secret, it disproportionately affects Arab-Americans, it is error-prone, there is no due process or effective recourse for people placed on the list, and it constantly and relentlessly expands. As of 2014, the government had a master watchlist of 680,000 people, forty percent of whom had “no recognized terrorist group affiliation.”

The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), which has long opposed federal watchlists (for which conservative Fox News host Bill O’Reilly called the liberal civil rights organization a “terrorist group”), declared that “The Use of Error-Prone and Unfair Watchlists Is Not the Way to Regulate Guns in America,” writing:

Regulation of firearms and individual gun ownership or use must be consistent with civil liberties principles, such as due process, equal protection, freedom from unlawful searches, and privacy…

It may sound appealing to regulate firearms by using the government’s blacklisting system for what it calls “known or suspected terrorists,” but we have long experience analyzing the myriad problems with that system, and based on what we know, it needs major overhaul…

Our nation’s watchlisting system is error-prone and unreliable because it uses vague and overbroad criteria and secret evidence to place individuals on blacklists without a meaningful process to correct government error and clear their names.

That’s why we have argued that if the government chooses to blacklist people, the standards it uses must be appropriately narrow, the information it relies on must be accurate and credible, and its use of watchlists must be consistent with the presumption of innocence and the right to due process.

Compare this with the words of the National Rifle Association. The NRA said in a statement:

The NRA believes that terrorists should not be allowed to purchase or possess firearms, period. Anyone on a terror watchlist 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. At the same time, due process protections should be put in place that allow law-abiding Americans who are wrongly put on a watchlist to be removed.

House Speaker Paul Ryan stressed at a press conference:

We do not take away a citizen’s rights without their due process. And so, if you had a quick idea in the heat of the moment that says, “Let’s take away a person’s rights without their due process,” we’re going to stand up and defend the Constitution.

The ultraconservative Federalist, in an article entitled “Democrats: We Shall Overcome the Constitution,” wrote that the Democrats’

message was clear. If we recklessly cling to the presumption of innocence, the terrorists have already won. If we fail to let bureaucrats create extrajudicial secret government lists that deny Americans their right to due process, we are, in essence, selling ISIS weapons of mass destruction.

Civil rights-era heroes like John Lewis, who lent his considerable legacy to this vacuous grandstanding, was once himself on the terror watch list. He didn’t know how he got on it. He didn’t know how to get off of it. Yet today he believes this Kafkaesque system is a sound way to deny his fellow citizens their rights.

There are numerous other examples, such as the more liberal The Daily Beast highlighting the story of a Muslim woman who had to fight in court for 8 years to get off the no-fly list, the far-left Intercept calling watchlists “secret” and “racist,” and the editor of the rightwing National Review editorializing that

In free countries such as the United States, we insist that the government distinguish between those who are “suspected” of lawbreaking and those who have been arrested, charged, convicted, or — at the very least — named in a time-limited warrant that has been signed by a judge. We also demand that any restriction on an individual’s liberty is subject to the due process of law.

Perhaps the popular idea of blocking people on federal watchlists from buying firearms can become reality only after Republicans and Democrats come together to, as Joe Scarborough put it, “fix the list!”

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