The Problem With Banning Guns From People On The Terrorist Watch List

CREDIT: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

A TSA security officer looks at airline passengers walking through a detector at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Monday, Jan. 4, 2010, in SeaTac, Wash. The names of dozens more people have been added to the government's terrorist watch list and no-fly list after a failed terrorist attack on Christmas prompted U.S. officials to closely scrutinize a large database of suspected terrorists, an intelligence officials said.

The main gun control legislation to reach a Senate vote in the wake of last week’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, targeted a specific group of people: those who have been labeled as potential terrorists by the federal government.

A bill to restrict gun sales to people on the federal government’s terrorist watch list failed in the Senate after media reports highlighted that people on the terrorist watch list successfully bought firearms over 2,000 times. Presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a staunch defender of the National Security Agency’s right to spy on millions of people without cause, denounced the effort to curb the civil liberties of “everyday Americans that have nothing to do with terrorism.”

“The majority of the people on the no-fly list are oftentimes people that just basically have the same name as somebody else, who doesn’t belong on the no-fly list,” he said on CNN’s State of the Union. “Former Senator Ted Kennedy once said he was on a no-fly list. There are journalists on the no-fly list.”

Rubio is right that many, if not most, of those flagged names don’t belong there.

Before September 11, 2001, the no-fly list, which names people who are banned from boarding flights in or out of the U.S., contained 16 people. A leak revealed that that number had grown to 47,000 as of 2013. Most of those names were added after President Obama took office. The broader terrorist watch list maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center has an even more expansive scope; the estimated number of people on the list has ranged from 700,000 to more than 1.5 million, figures which include Americans and foreigners.

Rahinah Ibrahim, a Stanford doctoral candidate and mother of four, was barred from the U.S. for nearly a decade when she left Stanford for a visit home to Malaysia, not realizing her name was on the no-fly list. She was taken away in handcuffs and interrogated before she was cleared to fly to Malaysia in 2005. But when she tried to go back to California, she discovered her visa had been revoked because of suspected terrorist ties. For years, she fought the federal government simply to find out why she had been put on the no-fly list in the first place.

The government argued they had to keep the reason secret because it was sensitive to national security. That reason turned out to be that an FBI official accidentally “checked the wrong boxes, filling out the form exactly the opposite way from the instructions on the form,” a federal judge found.

Since Ibrahim’s hard-won legal victory, other lawsuits have attempted to chip away at the secrecy surrounding the terrorist watch list. People don’t know they’re on the watch list until they try to get on a plane, and have no way other than a legal battle to correct errors. Countless people, including American citizens, have been abruptly stranded in foreign countries as they fight for their right to return to the U.S. According to classified documents obtained by the Intercept, the broader terrorist watch list includes 280,000 people — more than 40 percent of the list — who the government says have no recognized terrorist affiliation.

But Rubio’s concern for the civil liberties of the wrongly accused doesn’t extend very far past the Second Amendment. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, he vowed to do “whatever it takes” to defeat ISIS — mainly by ramping up surveillance. Rubio’s foreign policy doctrine placed “a strong intelligence community” at the center of his counterterrorism strategy. He has called for enshrining the controversial bulk data collection programs as permanent fixtures in U.S. policy. He even claimed, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, that “there is not a single documented case of abuse of this program.”