No Fly, No Buy is the Wrong Way to Regulate Gun Sales

At around 2am on June 12th, Omar Mateen approached Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida armed with a SIG Sauer MCX semi-automatic rifle and a 9mm Glock 17 semi-automatic pistol. Mateen was engaged by an armed and uniformed off duty Orlando Police officer who had been contracted by the club owner to provide security but still managed to make it inside. Once inside Mateen opened fire killing 49 people and injuring 53 in one of the worst acts of terrorism and hate crimes in US history.

This shooting, like the shootings in Sandy Hook, Charleston, San Bernardino, and so many others provoked renewed calls for commonsense gun control measures. In an address that was reminiscent of so many eulogies over the past eight years President Obama reiterated calls for Congress to take action on gun control, saying “This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship, or a movie theater, or in a nightclub. And we have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be. And to actively do nothing is a decision as well.”

When it was revealed that Mateen had been investigated by the FBI for potential terrorist links and that he had been on a terrorist watch-list a chorus erupted, demanding new laws to prevent people on the terrorist watch-list from purchasing firearms. Law makers on both sides of the political aisle have put forward bills that would limit gun sales to people on terrorist watch-lists.

Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) became a hero among gun control advocates when he launched a filibuster demanding votes on the proposed legislation. After 15 hours Republican Senate leadership capitulated and four pieces of gun control legislation (two sponsored by Democrats and two sponsored by Republicans) were brought to the floor for votes — all four bills failed to make it through the intransigent US Senate.

Days later civil rights icon, Representative John Lewis (D-Georgia) and House Democrats one-upped Murphy by launching a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives, vowing not to leave until Speaker Paul Ryan allowed votes on gun control measures. Ryan responded by calling a recess until after the Fourth of July.

While these legislative maneuvers have failed, public support for gun control legislation has grown dramatically. Different measures have been floated in various pieces of legislation ranging from the revival of assault rifle bans to expanded background checks. The idea that seems to be getting the most traction is “No Fly, No Buy” legislation that would prohibit people on federal terror watch lists like the no-fly list from purchasing weapons.

In an incredibly divided political climate, no-fly, no buy legislation enjoys an incredible amount of bipartisan political support. According to a recent CNN/ORC poll, 85% of Americans support banning people on federal watch-lists from buying guns. Interestingly, support for that measure is even stronger among Republicans — a full 90% of Republicans surveyed favored preventing people on terror watch lists from buying guns.

Using terror watch-lists as a tool to screen potential gun buyers makes perfect sense — unless you’re familiar with these watch lists.

The FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) is a compilation of at least eleven different lists compiled by the Departments of Homeland Security, State, Justice, and Defense. The federal government will not disclose how many people are on the list but the FBI has reported that as many as 1,600 people are nominated for the list each day. In total the list is rumored to have over one million names.

People on the watch list have not necessarily been convicted of a crime — or even accused of a crime. The criteria for adding people to the watch-lists is confidential; people added to the watch list are not afforded any type of due process and there is no way to appeal your status on the list. In fact, there’s no way to know for certain whether or not you are actually on the list!

I have some personal experience with the Terrorist Screening Database. I was on the terrorist watch-list for at least five years, from 2009 until 2014.

In fall of 2009 I was detained, fingerprinted and interrogated for over three hours while returning to the US from Northern Ontario for a work trip. The next time I traveled to Canada I was detained again while returning to the US-and the time after that and the time after that. Each time I was detained I was held for a longer period of time and I was more aggressively searched and more aggressively questioned. During one stop the Customs and Border Patrol agents seized my laptop and held it for three weeks. After that incident I stopped traveling internationally.

I was never told why I was being detained but the first stop came just a few weeks after I had helped to organize major demonstrations at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh. In the lead up to and during the summit Pittsburgh-based organizers were subjected to extensive police surveillance and harassment. During the summit hundreds of people were arrested and subjected to tear gas, pepper spray, tasers, and illegal arrest.

I was not arrested or charged with any crimes related to the G20 protests — And for the record the only crime I committed during the summit was participating in a march without a permit.

The searches didn’t just happen at border crossings; I was also searched hundreds of times at the airport. For five years, each time I flew my boarding pass was marked with four S’s. I later learned that the marking stood for ‘Secondary Screening Selectee System.’ I was on the Transportation Security Administration’s “Automatic Selectee System,” a watered down version of the no-fly list.

When I would get to the front of the security line at the airport, the agent at the podium would call for a supervisor. The supervisor would escort me through security, subject me to a pat down, manually inspect my carryon luggage, and swab my hands and luggage for explosives. I travel frequently for work so I would be subjected to these searches five or six times each month.

One day a helpful TSA agent who had patted me down multiple times at the Pittsburgh airport suggested that I might want to try to get my name off the list. He gave me a form for the Department of Homeland Security’s Traveler Redress Information Program (TRIP). I filled out the form and sent it to Homeland Security.

A few weeks later I received a letter in the mail saying that DHS could not confirm or deny whether or not I was on the list but if I was on the list in error I had been removed. The letter also included an identifying number (redress number) that I was then required to use while booking flights. 
 
 The searches continued for years after I filled out that redress request.

Then, four years later, on my 30th birthday, while I was traveling to Atlanta for work I noticed that there was no SSSS marking on my boarding pass. I assumed that there had been some sort of glitch in the system but I went through security just like any other passenger.

A few days later, on my way back to Pittsburgh, when I printed out my boarding pass I eagerly looked for the S’s. No SSSS. I haven’t been pulled out of line at the airport or stopped at the border since then. 
 
 I don’t know why I was ever on the terrorist watch list. I’m not a terrorist and I have no ties to any terrorist organizations. I also don’t know why I was taken off the watch-list on my 30th birthday (unless the FBI subscribes to Abby Hoffman’s philosophy that activists can’t trust anybody over the age of 30).

The only plausible rationale for my nomination for the terrorist watch-list is my political activity. I am an anarchist and an activist. I regularly organize and participate in non-violent protests, I write articles that are critical of US government policy, train organizers in organizing creative and dynamic non-violent protests to fight for social and economic justice.

My story of inexplicable and likely politically motivated placement on the terrorist watch-list isn’t unique. I personally know dozens of activists who have been consistently searched at the airport or at the border. And while the federal government refuses to disclose any information on who they actually have on their watch-lists, based on years of anecdotal evidence we can reasonably assume that the lists disproportionately target Muslims, people of color, and political dissidents.

The United States has the highest rate of gun violence in the world and we urgently need to do something to limit access to guns. But the shadowy, inaccurate, sprawling terrorist watch-lists are not an effective or a just tool for deciding who has the right to bear arms and who does not. 
 
At the airport, we all take our shoes off, put our belongings through an x-ray machine, and walk through a body scanner. Why can’t we screen everyone who wants to buy an assault rifle? Or why don’t follow the text of the Second Amendment and restrict gun ownership to individuals who are active members of a well-regulated militia?

Even if we can adequately restrict access to guns, there are already enough guns in the United States for every single man, woman and child. So a reasonable and rational approach to gun control requires a robust, federally funded, no-questions-asked, gun buy-back program.

I don’t want to own a gun — quite frankly they scare me. I think that the country would be a much safer and healthier place if we could dramatically reduce the number of guns in our communities. I enthusiastically applaud Senator Murphy and Representative King’s bold efforts to force action on gun control. But as someone who has experienced being singled out by our federal government’s shadowy watch-lists, the idea of restricting rights based on watch-lists terrifies me.

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