Homeland Security

Why you can’t support a no-fly list but allow those on it to get guns

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It’s difficult to balance rights and security, particularly when it’s difficult to measure security. That’s one reason why the debates on gun control that follow mass shootings rarely lead to compromise solutions.

There are components of the debate that should be easy, though. One relates to the no-fly list, and was brought up recently by President Obama.

{mosads}I’m going to go further than he did and claim the following: A member of Congress cannot both support a no-fly list and not support prohibiting weapons possession for people on the no-fly list without knowingly sacrificing citizens’ safety for ideology.

That’s a strong claim, so let’s be clear: I am not arguing for or against a no-fly list. I also take no issue with those who are against both the no-fly list and related weapons prohibition. Or those who are for both. Or even those who are for weapons prohibitions but not the no-fly list.

I am saying that any security-based argument for a no-fly list must also include prohibiting weapons possession for those on the list. Supporting the first but not the second knowingly sacrifices citizens’ safety.

To see why, just follow the logic of this position. The argument for a no-fly list is that the government has identified a group of people who are such a threat that, even after Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening, they cannot be trusted to get on a commercial aircraft. This means their threat is so serious that it is acceptable to prohibit them from taking an action that literally everyone else is allowed to take just by buying a ticket.

There are lots of potentially valid arguments against such a list. You could argue that it unfairly removes people’s rights without due process; that errors or the ability to bypass it make it ineffective; that profiling might be dangerously discriminatory; or that it gives too much power to government.

There are also potentially valid arguments in favor of such a list. The main one is security. By disallowing flight by the most dangerous people, you make another 9/11 less likely.

But here’s the thing: The arguments for or against prohibiting weapons possession for people on this list are exactly the same.

In light of this, how could a member of Congress be for a no-fly list and against prohibiting weapons possession for those on the list?

Could it be that he or she doesn’t believe the people on the no-fly list are a grave threat to others’ safety? No, because then he or she wouldn’t support the list. Could he or she be taking a principled stance against limiting civil liberties without sufficient due process? No, for the same reason.

It might be that the member of Congress believes it to be riskier to allow potential terrorists to fly than to acquire weapons. That would mean that even after all the prohibitions and screenings we go through to get on a plane, he or she still thinks a potential terrorist could do more harm there than he could with an AR-15 in some other enclosed space.

Even before the Orlando mass shooting, this belief would have been hard to square with the relative safety of flying post-9/11 and the relative frequency and death toll of mass shootings. But maybe, despite all the travel they do, members of Congress know something the rest of us don’t about air travel. If so, I’d expect them to attempt to mandate background checks for potential fliers.

More likely, though, is that members of Congress are ideologically opposed to any prohibition on weapons possession by anyone, regardless of their threat. And there’s the problem. Because that would mean that despite one’s belief that a potential terrorist is such a grave threat we should restrict his rights, one’s ideology prohibits actually protecting against this threat. In fact, one’s ideology explicitly allows a person who is a grave threat easy access to the weapons he needs to carry it out.

I hope it is clear that this policy stance is unacceptable. Not only is it bad, inconsistent policy, but its lack of principle makes it difficult to take seriously other policy positions related to firearms that may be more principled.

Luckily, the solutions are easy. A member of Congress could be consistent with his or her positions on Second Amendment issues and argue that the no-fly list represents an unjust and dangerous government overreach. Or that member could be consistent with his or her views on security and prohibit weapons possession by those on the no-fly list. But members of Congress can’t have it both ways.

Siegel is an associate professor of political science at Duke University.

Tags Gun No Fly List No-Fly List Transportation Security Administration TSA weapon

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