In the recent days after the Orlando shooting at Pulse nightclub, gun control advocates have seized on the fact that the shooter, Omar Mateen, was able to purchase a firearm despite the fact that he was previously on the U.S. government’s terror watch list (there’s been a misconception being propagated that he was still on the list at the time of the shooting; this is not the case.) Those who support the idea that those being investigated by the FBI for terrorism should forfeit their second amendment rights view it as common sense.
This emotional plea is semi-understandable in a vacuum, if one is discussing only the case at hand. Mateen would not have been able to (legally) buy a firearm if this policy had been in place. I don’t personally believe that this would have prevented the shooting, as a person who is willing to massacre dozens of innocent people is likely wiling to jump through the hoops set up by the legal system to get a weapon, but I can at the very least understand the motivation behind it.
But as we know, laws do not exist in a vacuum. Their consequences are not limited to their original motivations, and they have the ability to affect us all in one way or another. Once a law is passed granting the government more power, the chances that government will eventually remove to repeal that law are extremely slim. Calling it an uphill battle is an understatement; when we give government an inch, it takes a mile. Taking drastic action directly after a tragedy is often a mistake; it’s not a stretch to say that humans tend to overreact to events that occur in the present without thinking about the future.
One has to look only as far back as September 11, 2001, to see that our important rights and liberties are often trampled upon after a cataclysmic event. Without 9/11 or another large attack, the American public would likely never have supported the PATRIOT Act, the Iraq War, and mass NSA surveillance. What happened to the victims in Orlando was obviously tragic. But people die in car crashes, from terrible diseases, and are murdered everyday, and we don’t shed a tear about it. Civilians are blown up in air strikes, and we write off their deaths as “collateral damage.” The U.S.-led Iraq War resulted in the deaths of over 100,000+ civilians (with some estimates higher), yet we still wave our flags and chant “U-S-A.” 224 people were killed in the first week of Ramadan in Syria, but one is not likely to see a Facebook status written about it. When we become obsessed over specific incidents, we tend to miss the bigger picture.
We first need to realize that this proposal is about much more than the ability of a terrorist to buy a weapon. An important distinction must be made between those who are on a terrorist watch list and those who have actually committed acts of terror. Convicted terrorists are already prohibited from purchasing firearms. Being on the terrorist watch list does not make one a terrorist, any more than being questioned about a robbery makes one a bank robber. The idea that a person is innocent until proven guilty is a standard we must fight to uphold. If the government does not even have enough evidence to make an arrest, they most certainly do not have enough evidence to punish someone.
If a right can be taken away by putting someone on a secret list (that no one outside of government actually knows the criteria for) without due process, it’s no longer a right. Allowing government to take our rights away without any accountability opens us up to the possibility that government officials will restrict the rights of people they don’t like: whether that be political enemies, those who speak out against the government, or even those that they have personal problems with. And don’t forget about those who have been mistakenly placed on the list, or those who are put on the list with extremely weak evidence; leaked documents showed that almost 40 percent of those on the terror watch list have “no affiliation with recognized terrorist groups”. Those who are on the list mistakenly often have no recourse, as the entire process is shrouded in secrecy.
Even those who support increased gun control should be extremely wary of this kind of power. The FBI has allegedly already used the no-fly list to attempt to coerce innocent Muslims into spying on their friends and neighbors, and with human nature dictating that power is likely to be abused, it is improbable that this was an isolated incident. When an increase in government power is proposed, it’s helpful to think of what would happen if your worst nightmare were to be elected. Imagine a President Donald Trump who chooses to place everyone he doesn’t like on a watch list that precludes them from exercising their individual rights. Imagine if this same idea is next applied to the first amendment instead of the second. It’s not far-fetched to think that politicians could overreact to a future terrorist attack and demand that those on the terror watch-list lose their right to freedom of assembly, in fear that they may be plotting attacks in private.
Those who support banning those who are on the terror watch-list from buying guns are effectively saying that government should be able to find you guilty of a crime without evidence, a trial, or even an arrest. This is not a step toward making us safer; it’s a fast-track to the kind of tyranny that the second amendment is supposed to help protect us from.