Officials are still searching for a motive behind the mass shooting that killed 14 people and injured at least 21 others in San Bernardino, California this week. Following the shooting, President Barack Obama called for new gun control measures, including one that would ban any individual on the FBI’s terrorist watch list, otherwise known as the no-fly list, from buying guns.
“For those who are concerned about terrorism, some may be aware of the fact that we have a no-fly list where people can’t get on planes,” Obama told CBS News in an interview after the shooting, “but those same people who we don’t allow to fly could go into a store right now in the United States and buy a firearm, and there’s nothing we can do to stop them. That’s a law that needs to be changed.”
Democratic lawmakers such as Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) have closed ranks behind the president and supported a bill that would prevent anyone on the list from buying a firearm or materials for an explosive device. Supporters of the bill say it is common sense, but when the bill arrived at the Senate on Thursday, it was voted down.
So why do so many people disagree? Especially after news reports that the suspects behind the San Bernardino shooting, Syed Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik, were in contact with those on the watch list?
Well, that is because critics of the watch list say that its screening process is far from accurate, and includes many Americans with absolutely no ties to terrorist groups. Many Republican lawmakers, including many of the current presidential candidates, oppose banning those on the list from buying firearms. Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard and now running for the Republican nomination, says that she was personally affected.
“My best friend’s husband was on the watch list for years, it was a complete mistake,” she told MSNBC. “He also happened to be a gun owner. If I had utter faith in the competence of government I might agree with that [bill], but do you? I don’t. The government screws up all the time.”
The FBI terrorist watchlist is secret list of individuals believed to have connections to terrorism, but critics say the screening process seems arbitrary. In many cases, opponents say that people on the list have no idea why they are on it, or how to be taken off. Sometimes the only way to find out if you are on the list in the first place is by trying to board a plane.
Perhaps more worryingly, skeptics say that it can take little more than a racist co-worker or a paranoid neighbor to land someone on the watch list. According to Newsweek, the American Civil Liberties Union noted that in 2013, more than 680,000 people were on the list. In 2009, that list had over one million names. Between 2007 and 2009, roughly 51,000 people attempted to remove themselves from the list, and in the vast majority of these cases it turned out to be the result of a mistaken identity.
It is for these reasons why many pro-gun groups, such as the NRA, oppose the bill to ban those on the list from purchasing firearms.
“The NRA’s only objective is to ensure that Americans who are wrongly on the list are afforded their constitutional right to due process,” said Jennifer Baker, the NRA’s director of public affairs.
“The NRA does not want terrorists or dangerous people to have firearms, any suggestion otherwise is offensive and wrong,” she added. “Under the current system, law enforcement is notified every time a person on the list attempts to purchase a firearm. Law Enforcement then makes a case by case decision on the appropriate follow-up for each circumstance.”
According to the CBC, the Government Accountability Office reported that people on the list do successfully purchase firearms—and are monitored separately from those not on the list. Between 2013 and 2014, the FBI conducted 485 background checks for individuals on the watch list. Only 30 were denied.
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