During Monday night’s first presidential debate, there wasn’t much the two candidates were able to agree on. They sparred over Donald Trump’s tax returns and business deals and, at one point, considered whether Hillary Clinton could be blamed for everything.
But there was one exception. In a rare moment of agreement, both candidates endorsed an error-prone proposal to restrict gun purchases among people who appear on a problematic “no fly, no buy” or terror watch list that’s maintained by the federal government.
CLINTON: We need to pass a prohibition on anyone on the terrorist watch list from being able to buy a gun.
TRUMP: I agree with you. When a person is on a watch list or no fly list, I think we have to look very strongly at no fly lists. I tend to agree with that.
This government list was compiled after the September 11, 2001 attacks, when U.S. intelligence agencies pooled their lists of suspected terrorists into one database maintained by the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).
Checking gun buyers against this terror watch list has bipartisan backing. And in theory, the idea seems sound. After all, who wants to give a gun to someone who can’t fly on a plane because they’re on a scary watch list?
But in practice, there are a lot of issues with ever-growing watch list. For one, it can lead to additional racial or religious profiling.
Stop arguing for gun control through the terrorism watch list. It's a list riddled with racial and ethnic profiling. Racist af. #debatenight
— Adrienne Mahsa (@AdrienneMahsa) September 27, 2016
There are an estimated 700,000 to 1.5 million people on the watch list, the majority of whom are immigrants and foreigners. The NCTC found some evidence that only 25,000 people — or 2.3 percent — of the 1.1 million people on the consolidated watch list are American citizens or legal permanent residents.
Some of the flagged names may be people who otherwise wouldn’t be on the no-fly list, but who have the same name as other individuals. There could also be name mismatches in the system. Reporters including Stephen Hayes and Drew Griffin have encountered this nightmare. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) was once on the list. And even the late Sen. Ted Kennedy was once misidentified as someone on a selectee list required undergo additional security screening before boarding planes.
Classified documents obtained by the Intercept found that the terrorist watch list includes 280,000 people whom the government says have no recognized terrorist affiliation at all.
The American Civil Liberties Union has challenged recent congressional bills that rely on the federal government’s use of the watch list system, arguing that the list is unreliable since it relies on “vague and overbroad criteria and secret evidence to place individuals on blacklists without a meaningful process to correct government error and clear their names.”
The ACLU also pointed out that an internal 2013 government document showed that Dearborn, Michigan, which is home to a large population of Arab-Americans, “was second only to new York City in the number of people on the government’s ‘known or suspected terrorist’ watch list.”
What’s more, there’s not a lot of evidence that restricting gun purchases this way would prevent violence. People could still buy guns, including assault weapons, at gun shows or online because of a background check loophole.