Americans are on edge after the mass shootings in Paris and Orlando, and a challenge for political parties and candidates this election is to show voters how they plan to safeguard our communities from the threat of terrorism. Instead of providing real leadership on the issue, Democrats gave credibility to Donald Trump’s fear-mongering by staging an overnight sit-in on June 22-23 to force a vote on the “No Fly No Buy” bill.
Formally called the Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act (HR 1075), it was introduced on February 25, 2015, by Representative Peter King (R-NY2), who has introduced it five times since 2007. The bill died in committee even when Democrats were in the majority, and it garnered only 25 cosponsors in 2013.
With only 18 cosponsors, HR 1075 appeared destined for the same fate until last fall, when polling showed strong public support. Democrats seized on it as an opportunity to do some damage to Republicans on national security, an issue the public generally perceives as a weakness for Democrats.
House leadership began pushing for a vote as part of their election strategy, filing a discharge petition to bring the bill to the floor, but failing to collect the required number of signatures.
Proponents claim the bill will prevent those on the government’s terrorism watch list from buying guns, but “No Fly No Buy” is so repugnant and worthless that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Rifle Association are united in opposition.
For one thing, its nickname is a misnomer. The bill does not just apply to the “No Fly” list, but to the entire Terrorist Screening Database maintained by the FBI. The No Fly list is only one subset of this much larger list.
The bill requires the US Attorney General to conduct reviews on an individual basis to determine if the person actually poses a threat, but the ACLU calls the language “vague and overbroad, which raises significant concerns about arbitrary and discriminatory government action.”
The bill also creates a whole new watch list comprised of those who have been investigated during the previous five years, even if they were cleared.
In a June 20 letter, the ACLU urged lawmakers to vote against a similar amendment in the Senate. “Tens of thousands of federal and state law enforcement officers have authority to conduct terrorism investigations, using standards that require no factual predicate. Some investigations are undoubtedly legitimate, but the basis for others is sometimes nothing more than discriminatory profiling, an exercise of First Amendment-protected rights, or a spiteful neighbor or coworker.”
The bill allows a denial to be appealed, but according to the ACLU, does not provide “basic due process safeguards: full notice of the reasons why a permit was denied and the basis for those reasons, which necessarily requires that secret evidence not be used as the basis for the denial.” Of particular concern is a provision allowing the attorney general to determine procedures for the judiciary.
Minnesota’s Eighth District Representative Rick Nolan signed the petition to bring No Fly No Buy to the floor, but he is not one of the bill’s cosponsors. He attended the sit-in for a short time, but remained mostly silent while other House members tweeted and posted photos to social media as giddily as children at a forbidden slumber party.
Nolan shared a photo op posted by Representative Betty McCollum of Minneapolis and gave a short floor speech, which included this gem: “The fact is, when you’re out duck hunting, you can only have three shells in your gun. Why? To protect ducks! That’s right—we put limits on guns to protect ducks.” Doubtless the ducks would disagree.
Back home, Nolan parroted the Democratic talking points about the bill. “If you’re on the FBI’s “No Fly” Terrorist Watch List, you shouldn’t be allowed to purchase a gun,” he wrote in the next Monday Report. “Stopping terrorists from buying guns is what last week’s historic sit-in on the House floor was all about.”
And to the Brainerd Dispatch, “The fact that someone has sworn allegiance to a terrorist group and wants to kill Americans, as far as I’m concerned, is sufficient evidence for me that they shouldn't be allowed to buy a gun.”
Great sound bite, but that isn’t how the watch list works. In 2014, The Intercept published “the secret government rulebook for labeling you a terrorist,” revealing a chilling system with no checks and balances, based on vague criteria and McCarthy-esque guilt-by-association. One need not be a member, nor associated with a member, of any terrorist group. You don’t even have to be suspected of committing a violent crime.
An individual who is merely suspected of associating with another individual who is suspected of possibly being a terrorist can find themselves blacklisted. The broad definition of “terrorist activity” includes “any act that is dangerous to property and intended to influence government policy through intimidation.”
The ACLU has long called for the system to be either overhauled or scrapped. “Our nation’s watchlisting system is error-prone and unreliable because it uses vague and overbroad criteria and secret evidence to place individuals on blacklists without a meaningful process to correct government error and clear their names.”
No Fly No Buy is dangerous because it diverts attention from real efforts to curb gun violence, misinforms the public and virtually ensures that the discriminatory government watch list system remains unchanged. It strips Americans of their constitutional rights while doing absolutely nothing to enhance their safety. But it certainly makes for a great election year talking point for Rick Nolan.
A member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, Shelly Mategko is an award-winning journalist.