Monday, June 22, 2009

Have Gun, Can't Travel

A few years ago a carpenter was doing some work in our house—building a wall of bookshelves so we could turn an unused bedroom into a library. It took him a few days and in that time we chatted a lot. On his last day it was obvious he wanted to say something to us, but it took him a little time to work his way around to the topic.
When he finally got there, he asked me and Erica if we would be willing to give some of our time and opinions to an environmental coalition he was part of. As he spoke, we were both a little perplexed about why he thought we might be good people to have in his coalition. Was it our good looks? Our obvious intelligence? Our wide-ranging taste in books? Our sparkling conversationalism?
Though all of these qualities no doubt apply, in the end none of them were the actual reason he asked us. As he ended his pitch he said something like, “what we’re trying to do is bridge the gap between lefty liberal environmentalist groups and more conservative groups with some overlapping interests. I saw the NRA sticker on your car and I thought you guys might be just what we are looking for.”
Ahhhhh. So that was it. The National Rifle Association member sticker on the rear window of our ’99 Volvo. We had to tell the carpenter that the car did indeed belong to us, but that we were not, in fact, members of the NRA. Nor had we ever been. My brother Rich—who sold us the car—belonged. He probably still does. But we do not. Nor will we ever, most probably. His face fell as he mentally took a black, fine-point, permanent Sharpie and drew a thin dark line through our names.
Here it is at least three years later and we still have the NRA sticker on the car, probably in some misguided belief that it might deter thieves.
I thought of that sticker yesterday. Was even tempted to finally remove it when I read about all the people on the government’s terrorist watch list who have made purchases of guns and explosives in the past several years. In the rush to pass the USA PATRIOT Act after 9/11 many legislators were willing to sacrifice some of our expansive civil liberties in the name of security. But even then, in the immediate aftermath of the worst attack on this country since Pearl Harbor, the NRA stood firm in their defense of everyone’s right to possess a gun. Somehow, a provision calling for inclusion on the terrorist watch list to lead to an automatic exclusion from the right to buy guns or explosives never became part of the law.
A 2007 effort by Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey to address this glaring omission was squashed by the NRA and their lackeys in the Congress. And yesterday I read of a soon-to-be-released report from the Government Accountability Office that said:

“People on the government’s terrorist watch list tried to buy guns nearly 1,000 times in the last five years, and federal authorities cleared the purchases 9 times out of 10 because they had no legal way to stop them. In one case, a person on the list was able to buy more than 50 pounds of explosives.”

Senator Lautenberg will try once again to close this potentially disastrous loophole, but I don’t have high hopes for his success. Think what you will about the NRA, but they are incredibly effective at killing legislation they don’t like.
I have a huge list of problems with the government’s terrorist watch list as it exists today. It seems to apply a sledgehammer where a jeweler’s hammer would work better. But if inclusion on the list is enough to prevent a fully-screened passenger from getting on a plane or a person wishing to travel from getting a visa, how is it NOT enough to stop someone from buying 50 pounds of explosives or a gun?
I would love to see the leadership of the NRA step out of their one-track minds and step forward to take the lead in efforts to reshape the terrorist watch list into something more useful and evidence-based. Sadly, I don’t think this will happen. Instead, they will go around yelling, “Slippery slope, slippery SLOPE. They want our guns!!” and somehow manage to keep the world safe for identified potential terrorists to buy guns and explosives.
That seals it. You know what? That sticker comes off my car today.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Chris

    Saw your NY Times comment today, seven years after this post. My response, somewhere else in that thread.

    The problem with many of the "reasonable regulations" laid out is they are closer to what cdawson65 (you) calls the sledgehammer rather than the jewler's hammer. We need more nuance, as cdawson65 tells us.

    For example, as it is currently operated, the terror watch list procedings are largely kept secret by the government and it can take a herculean effort for an innocent party to get off of it. Denying an enumerated right on the basis of a secret court proceeding is likely to be thrown out as unconstitutional. (the Feds get away with the no-fly list using the fig leaf that flying in a commercial plane is not a right under the Constitution). The ACLU has been working this issue for years. Due process, and a way to challenge being put on the terror watch list, needs to be worked into the terror watch list system if it is to be used to prohibit someone from exercising a right listed in the Constitution.

    Then, as now, I am loathe to allow the government to use the terror watch list now and fix it later. I am with the ACLU on this one.

    Also see you are up in Ithaca. I grew up near Buffalo, and had relatives in Horseheads for a long time. Hope you are doing well.