Since its inception shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the no-fly list has been a controversial element of the nation’s armor of self-protection with the simplest of concepts: if the federal government thinks you’re a terrorist or linked to terrorists, you can’t fly.
But now, with President Barack Obama calling for those on the no-fly list to be barred from purchasing guns, the list, once again, has emerged as a hot button issue, with both civil liberties proponents and gun rights groups lambasting the plan.
“Congress should act to make sure no one on a no-fly list is able to buy a gun,” Obama said Sunday during a rare address from the Oval office. “What could possibly be the argument for allowing a terrorist suspect to buy a semiautomatic weapon?”
Well, there are a few arguments, say critics.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich – in a position that is makes him something of an outlier among Republicans - would ban guns sales to those on the no-fly list, but said he worries about banning gun sales from the larger terrorism screening database, of which the no-fly list is a subset. His specific concern: That it would alert people that they are being watched as suspected terrorists.
“We have people who were stopped in our state who we know were on a terrorist watch list,” he told a questioner Saturday during a town hall at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, N.H.
“We don’t tell them they’re on a terrorist watch list. We want to know who they are, and we want to know what their processes and procedures are. And that list apparently is pretty broad. Should we figure out a way to keep people like that from being able to get firearms? I think the answer would be yes, OK?”
His concern is echoed by Dave Joly, a Terrorist Screening Center spokesperson.
“The Terrorist Screening Center does not publicly confirm nor deny whether any individual maybe included in the U.S. Government’s Terrorist Screening Database or a subset list,” he said. “Disclosure of an individual’s inclusion or non-inclusion in the (database) or on the no-fly list would significantly impair the government’s ability to investigate and counteract terrorism, and protect transportation security.”
A broader concern is that the list could keep innocent people from buying guns.
“There have been all kinds of people put on that list who weren’t a threat,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, who argues that the government is too reliably ineffective to be able to handle such a list capably. “There are all kinds of mistakes that have been made.”
Information about the list is murky.
According to the TSA, there are fewer than 50,000 on the no-fly and selectee list, a secondary list that puts people through additional screening before boarding a plane. The larger Terrorist Screening Database – of which the no-fly list is a subset - included more than 700,000 in April 2007, according to an audit by the U.S. Department of Justice, but was growing at a rate of about 20,000 a month, according to that audit. TSA estimates there are fewer than 50,000, and says that in fall 2007, the agency did a name-by-name “scrub” that reduced both lists by almost 50 percent.
Critics including the American Civil Liberties Union, however, worry the lists can unfairly target innocent people.
Sen. Ted Kennedy complained in 2004 that he was put on a no-fly list; in fact, according to the TSA, he was misidentified as an individual on a separate list for additional screening but was not on the actual no-fly list. The TSA Secure Flight initiative – aimed at more efficiently matching passengers and watch lists – was hoped to help address many of the problems posed by the watch list. Yusuf Islam – the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, the 1960s folk singer who urged listeners to “ride on the peace train” – was put on the list.
So was Jim Irvine. He’s the president of the Buckeye Firearms Association, the leading gun rights group in Ohio, and he’s also a commercial airline pilot.
He said for three years, he was mistaken for another Jim Irvine – one who was born the same month as him. It made his job extremely difficult.
Oddly, he was permitted to fly a plane – they rely on different lists. But when he wanted to ride on a plane as a passenger – as pilots often to – he ran into all sorts of trouble.
“My life sucked for three years going to work,” he said. “I was okay to sit in the cockpit but not to sit in the cabin.”
He calls the no-fly list “complete and utter nonsense.”
“No one knows how they get on there, who puts you on there, how to get off there or anything,” he said. “It can get used for a witch hunt.”
While Obama is targeting the no-fly list, others worry that this will eventually lead to the government banning gun purchases from those on the overall Terrorist Screening Database, a separate, larger list of people suspected of involvement with terrorism. The no-fly list is a subset of that list.
“We’ve had lot of constituents over the last several years call and complain about being on the (no-fly) list, how difficult it is to get off it and not knowing how they even got on it,” said Columbus-area Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Genoa Township. “The fact is that the list has huge problems. It has huge holes in it.”
Tiberi agrees that suspected terrorists should not be able to get guns. But, “if you’re a terrorist, you’re going to figure out how to get a gun, how to get explosives. The focus should be on terrorism.”
Kasich is rare in having not outright lambasted the proposal, and his willingness even spurred a White House spokesman this week to cite Kasich’s stance as evidence that it was a reasonable proposal.
But Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” said the list is not something “that you can be certain of,” saying it’s “not an accurate list to be able to use for restricting gun rights for law-abiding citizens.” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also expressed concern about it.
Debate over the lists briefly disrupted the House Tuesday, when House Democrats repeatedly offered motions to adjourn in an effort to get a vote on the no-fly list issue on the floor of the House. And the Senate last week rejected a measure to keep guns out of the hands of those on the terrorist watch list, with Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, voting against the measure and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, voting for it, saying the proposal was “common sense.”
“If someone poses too great a risk to our security to fly, than he should not be able to procure an assault weapon,” Brown said.
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