The ACLU backs using the terror watch list for gun control, but only “with major reform”

The ACLU has spent the last five years challenging the constitutionality of the United States’ No Fly list, citing major due process issues with the way the list is compiled and maintained.

However, the civil liberties organization is not taking an official position on a bill being pushed by Democrats in Congress (and President Obama) that would prohibit people on the list from buying guns.

The organization did say, through a spokesperson, that the watch list would need “major reforms” in order to be used as an effective tool for gun control and counterterrorism efforts. From Buzzfeed:

Gun via Shutterstock

Gun via Shutterstock

“We don’t have a position on the legislation in question, but … have many criticisms of the overall watchlisting system as it currently operates,” ACLU’s media strategist Josh Bell told BuzzFeed News.

“There is no constitutional bar to reasonable regulation of guns, and the No Fly List could serve as one tool for it, but only with major reform,” said Hina Shamsi, the director of the ACLU National Security Project.

Shamsi made the comment despite the group’s ongoing lawsuit against the list — which she argued can have a “devastating” effect on those who find themselves on it.

“The government puts people on the No Fly List using vague and overbroad standards,” she said, adding that “it is wrongly blacklisting innocents without giving them a fair process to correct government error.”

This seems like a cop-out from the ACLU. They’re saying that they don’t have a position on this legislation, but they’re also saying that they would only support this legislation with major reforms to the No Fly list — reforms that they know aren’t included. This being the case, they’ve come off as bending over backwards to avoid saying that the bill, like the list it’s based on, is a civil liberties nightmare that validates everything that’s wrong with both our surveillance state and our in-everything-but-name policy of racially profiling Arab Muslims.

As I wrote last month, the terror watch list in its current form is bad news. It shouldn’t be used for anything right now — not for restrictions on firearms purchases and not for restrictions on air travel. I understand the political wedge Democrats are trying to drive between Second Amendment absolutists and counterterrorism hawks within the GOP, but in pushing this bill they have validated over a decade of anti-Muslim bigotry propagated in the name of national security. By President Obama’s own logic, ceding that point and endorsing a list that’s little more than a thinly-veiled effort to make life difficult for Muslims does far more harm to our national security than the inevitable NRA-sponsored failure of this bill will.

Our go-to defenders of civil liberties can and should be doing better.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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4 Responses to “The ACLU backs using the terror watch list for gun control, but only “with major reform””

  1. Ol' Hippy says:

    The problem with the no-fly list is how or who determines who is on the list. There is no due process, a process in the US that’s supposed to be given to citizens. So if one’s placed on list, what determines it? How? I would want to know why I was on the list and what the reason was. So to use this list to limit sales sounds good(to some), but further steps on our civil rights, as if we need more loss of freedoms. Be careful trying to control one problem by creating two more in the process. Limiting access to weapons needs to be addressed but by legislative process not knee-jerk reactions that are responses to fear. Remember, how you get on list is a real problem, at least to me.

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  3. Outspoken1 says:

    Have to appear like you are doing something – even if it is useless.

  4. BeccaM says:

    The No-Fly list has become a lawless catch-all which appears in more than a few cases to have been extra-judicially and for vindictive reasons, simply to impede the travel of select individuals.

    There are no clear laws or regulations determining how people get onto the list, leading to a kind of Star Chamber exercise of it. We’re not even allowed to know what makes a person eligible, lest suspected terrorists find out they can’t fly before they arrive at the airport to learn they can’t fly. Far, far more importantly, there is no established process with concrete, consistent results for having one’s name removed from the list. No government agency to which you can apply to get a card or letter or some authorization assuring the TSA screeners and airlines that you are not a danger, even if your name matches that of someone on the list.

    Yes…the ACLU should basically take the position that because the No Fly list is such a blunt and anti-liberty tool, it shouldn’t be used for anything, really. On the other hand, there’s the point that it’s crazy if one is deemed too dangerous to be allowed on a plane to fly anywhere, but not too dangerous to buy as many guns and ammo as you want.

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