Did the NRA endorse using watch lists to stop gun sales earlier today? Not really, although this tweet from Reuters made it sound that way:
BREAKING: NRA says anyone on terrorism watchlist who tries to buy a gun should be investigated by the FBI and the sale delayed.
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) June 15, 2016
This all started with Donald Trump’s declared intention to get the NRA to work on keeping people on secret government lists from exercising their Second Amendment-protected civil rights. The NRA has long opposed such a move, but they also endorsed Trump last month for president on the assumption that he knows gun-rights issues well enough to stand up to pressure from the gun-control lobby.
Needless to say, this made things somewhat … awkward. The NRA issued a statement that tried to put the best possible face on things while making their position consistent:
We are happy to meet with Donald Trump. The NRA’s position on this issue has not changed. The NRA believes that terrorists should not be allowed to purchase or possess firearms, period. Anyone on a terror watchlist who tries to buy a gun should be thoroughly investigated by the FBI and the sale delayed while the investigation is ongoing. If an investigation uncovers evidence of terrorist activity or involvement, the government should be allowed to immediately go to court, block the sale, and arrest the terrorist. At the same time, due process protections should be put in place that allow law-abiding Americans who are wrongly put on a watchlist to be removed. That has been the position of Sen. John Cornyn (R.-Tex.) and a majority of the U.S. Senate. Sadly, President Obama and his allies would prefer to play politics with this issue.
Reuters seized on one sentence and ignored its context. The whole point of a watchlist is to flag activity for immediate investigation, whether it’s a travel watchlist or a gun-purchase watchlist. The NRA is in fact saying that such an activity is legitimate — but that’s as far as they go.
The sale of a firearm in this instance should only get delayed if the government does a timely investigation and then “immediately go to court, block the sale, and arrest the terrorist.” If the government is not prepared to do that, then the sale should proceed.
In other words, the government should not be able to block the exercise of civil rights merely on the basis of executive-branch suspicion and force citizens to (a) discover why their civil rights have been abrogated, and (b) prove themselves innocent rather fight against a presumption of guilt. That’s what we call “due process,” and that’s precisely what the watchlists lack.
It’s also the reason why FBI Director James Comey opposes the Democratic proposal. The denial of sale would trigger a process that could ruin national-security investigations:
— CQ Now (@CQnow) June 15, 2016
The FBI already gets alerted to these transactions, Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee in December when the watchlist ban proposal first came up, and takes whatever steps it can within the law to block sales but without tipping their hand. If all else fails, they ramp up the investigation:
“Last week, our president stated that there are individuals who can’t get on planes, but they can go to a gun shop and buy a firearm there and he said ‘nothing we can do to stop them,’ but – and correct me if I’m wrong – the FBI is notified when someone on the terrorist watch list attempts to purchase a firearm, and a NICS [National Instant Criminal Background Check System] check is requested, and the FBI has multiple avenues that they can pursue,” Grassley said at the committee’s hearing on the oversight of the FBI.
“These are some of these avenues: delay the firearms transaction, and if the person is actually a terrorist, the FBI can arrest them for any crime for which there is probable cause, and in addition, the FBI can intervene and directly confront the individual. The FBI can also put the suspect on what’s called around-the-clock surveillance. My question: Aren’t these some of the tools available to the FBI to stop a suspected terrorist from buying a gun?” Grassley asked.
“Mr. Chairman, you’re right,” said Comey. “There are a variety of things that we do when we are notified that someone on our known or suspected terrorist database is attempting to buy a firearm.
“The FBI is alerted when that is triggered, and then we do investigation, understand, are there disqualifiers that we’re aware of that could stop the transactions, and if the transaction goes through, the agents who are assigned to that case, to that subject are alerted to it so they can investigate,” Comey added.
“Thank you very much for that clarification,” said Grassley. “So there are then actually many things that can be done, done right now to stop one, someone on the no-fly list from buying a gun, and that leads me to say that our president is misrepresenting the facts and misleading the American people on that point.”
Well, Barack Obama hasn’t stopped misleading people on that point, and he has lots of company. The NRA isn’t among them, though it remains to be seen whether Trump will be.