The hypocrisy of the gun-control sit-in in the House of Representatives

gun control
Photo: Rep. Chellie Pingree via NPR

When our blood is boiling, we love to cheer on our causes and shout down the opposition. Is this you? “Guns — bad! Gun control — good! U.S. House of Representatives staging a sit-in to get a vote — very good! Periscope streaming to C-SPAN — great!” But hang on a second — have you really thought about what you’re cheering for?

Here’s the logic behind the filibuster in the Senate that will led to a vote on gun-control measures, and the sit-in in the House with the same aim:

  • Republicans leaders have blocked any vote on gun-control.
  • Democrats, in the minority in both houses, used these measures to force a vote.
  • Legislators get to vote on whether to stop terrorists — on the “No Fly List” — from getting guns.
  • When Republicans vote against these measures, Democrats get to say, “See, Republicans would rather preserve gun rights than block terrorists from getting guns. They’re controlled by the NRA.”

Hang on a second, how does that No Fly List actually work?

But before you get caught up in that narrative, let’s take a look at that list we’re using to define terrorists. The No Fly List and the associated terror watchlists:

  • Include anyone the government suspects, regardless of any due process.
  • Profile Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians in a discriminatory way. For example, there are more people on it from Dearborn, Michigan, a city with a large Muslim population, than any other city except New York, even though no one from Dearborn has ever been prosecuted for terrorism.
  • Include 680,00 people. Are there really over half a million suspected terrorists in the United States? Or is this list, out of an abundance of caution, full of false positives?
  • Are secret, and have no feature to appeal. Are you on this list? There’s no way to know. And if you are, why are you there? How can you fix it? You can’t know, and you can’t get off.

Imagine for a moment that this bill were to pass. We would have enshrined this extra-judicial watchlist into law. And having done so, we would have given the FBI and many other law enforcement agencies the ability to target anybody they want, with no recourse. Why not use the same list to restrict who gets opioid pain killers in the hospital? Who gets food stamps? Who gets credit from financial services companies? An arbitrary list like this has no place in legislation; it’s not a valid criteria for anything.

Which argument are you using to justify your support?

If you’re sharing the pictures of the Senate filibuster and House sit-in, which of these arguments are you supporting? Pick one (or more).

  • I’m for Democrats and I’ll ignore their flaws. This isn’t perfect, but at least it’s something, and with Republicans you’ll get nothing.
  • I’m for humiliating NRA-controlled Republicans. We need to shame these people! If it takes supporting a bill based on a questionable list, that’s ok — it’s not going to pass this session anyway. But it does allow us to say Republicans are so pro-gun rights that they’re soft on terrorists.
  • I trust law enforcement here. If they say somebody shouldn’t have a gun because they’re a suspected terrorist, that’s good enough for me. Even if there’s no way to challenge things if you’re on the list in error.
  • I’m for any gun control we can get. Civil liberties concerns are less important than stopping shooting. Even though nearly all the mass shootings are from people who aren’t on the list.
  • My support is selective. I like the bills that ask for background checks and waiting periods, not the watchlist bill, but it’s hard to make that subtle point in a Facebook post.

Which is it? Are you a Democratic partisan, a Republican hater, a backer of unfettered law enforcement power, a believer that gun control justifies discrimination, or a backer with some subtlety that’s hard to spot? If you’ve got some other reason I missed, I’d like hear it.

If you want to control guns, let’s get real

You know what, I’m against shootings. I’m against anything that makes it easy for a single wacko — a religious nut, or any other kind — to easily and quickly shoot lots of people.

You want to propose restrictions on the types of guns people can buy or huge bullet magazines? I’m for that. Restrictions like that have worked pretty well to stop the spread of fully automatic machine guns.

You want background checks and waiting periods? Go for it.

You want to allow the CDC to conduct research on guns and repeal the Dickey Amendment? You’ve got my vote.

You want to tax bullets? Allow people to sue gun makers for safety issues? Require training and liability insurance, as we do with cars? Excellent.

You want to have a real discussion about repealing the Second Amendment? Let’s have the discussion.

But I’m not willing to give law enforcement the ability to create arbitrary lists and use them to restrict rights — even gun rights. Because once those lists are in the law, we’re all in trouble. And I expect the people I vote for to protect me from that, the same way they should protect us all from nuts with assault weapons.

A note about comments: Please be civil. I’ll delete comments that include personal attacks, fail to address the issues I’ve raised, or are based on emotion only. This is a space for reasoning, not screaming.

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  1. “If you are for gun control, then you are not against guns, because the guns will be needed to disarm people. So it’s not that you are anti-gun. You’ll need the police’s guns to take away other people’s guns. So you’re very pro-gun; you just believe that only the Government (which is, of course, so reliable, honest, moral and virtuous…) should be allowed to have guns. There is no such thing as gun control. There is only centralizing gun ownership in the hands of a small political elite and their minions.”

    ― Stefan Molyneux

    1. I’m in favor of the government restricting access to certain kinds of guns and for certain kinds of people. I just don’t think the No Fly List is a good way to do that.

      Your quote is pretty lame, since it assumes that gun control means restricting access to all guns from all civilians.

  2. A very well reasoned analysis of the situation, which is far more complex than “the news” generally portrays.

    Is the senate’s resistence based on such sound logic? I wish I could believe that it is…..

    1. I have yet to hear any NRA-backed Republican using this argument. For one, it would imply that they don’t trust the No Fly List, which means they’re soft on terror. And second, it would open them up to arguments like “OK, if you don’t want to use the No Fly List, we can restrict access in some other way.”

      They just don’t want to even have the argument.

    1. Translation for the non-Latin speakers:

      For a hard knot a hard tool must be sought.

      Which I think falls into the justification I listed:

      “I’m for humiliating NRA-controlled Republicans.”

  3. Thanks for the analysis! I was just so excited to see lawmakers take any action, to see them seem to care, that I did not examine the specifics of the terrorist watch lists. I do think you are correct that they are problematic. Virginia just passed a law barring domestic abusers from owning firearms while bound by a protective order. I think that is a good idea but is not the same thing as a list with vague criteria that profiles people who may be dangerous. http://wtvr.com/2016/06/21/new-law-prohibits-domestic-abusers-from-possessing-firearms/

  4. Hard to argue with his position, but there are a couple points:

    More than one of the protesters (I believe Seth Moulton was one) has pointed out that the list probably needs to be fixed. Not just if used to restrict the right to buy a gun, but to not inconvenience flyers either. So fix it. NO list is perfect. A lot could be done in that direction.

    That said, there seems to be little argument against expanded and enforced background checks.

    The point of the protests is neither of these things, as neither of these things has anything to do with the dirty politics of not allowing a vote to occur at all. The vote itself is what this is about.

  5. While I appreciate your perspective and can find much wisdom and objectivity in it, you don’t really address what we SHOULD do about suspected terrorists. If there’s suspicion enough not to let someone fly, is it really such a stretch to suggest we shouldn’t let them legally buy guns without some sort of process or limitation? If you’re against preventing people from buying guns without due process, then you must also be against them flying without due process–so the problem here is not the guns, laws or Democrats–it’s the no-fly list, isn’t it?

    At this point, we’re doing nothing to prevent suspected terrorists from getting weapons. You argue that using the no-fly list does too much. Might there be a solution in between? Rather than turning down the proposal, maybe there are other solutions, such as delaying and reviewing people purchasing a weapon who appear on the list?

  6. I agree that the No Fly list is inherently 1) not transparent; 2) likely to be riddled with false positives; and 3) likely to be discriminatory.

    However, this does not necessarily make it bad or evil. Imagine we know 90% of the half million people on the list are false positives but do not know which people fall into which category. This still leaves 5,000 people who you *really* wouldn’t want to board an airplane with.

    The alternative to the No Fly list is to do nothing — even when there is solid evidence to believe there is a threat. So we’re faced with the choice to do nothing or to do something flawed. While I dislike that choice, on balance I would choose action over inaction: better to inconvenience a few people than to allow potential terrorists free rein.

    Further, I would argue that restricting innocent people’s ability to travel freely does far more harm than restricting their ability to own guns. On balance, if we have some evidence to believe someone might blow up an airplane it’s probably reasonable to suspect they shouldn’t have an AR-15 either.

    P.S. I acknowledge the possibility that 100% of people on the No Fly list may be entirely innocent and that truly dangerous people are in the air at this moment. But again, on balance, doing something is probably better than doing nothing. Security is inherently imperfect and problematic.

      1. Here we come face-to-face with the transparency issue. If it was announced that the only reason you were placed on the list was because of this blog post, that would be clearly unfair and dangerous to free expression. But if it was claimed that there was real — but unidentified — evidence we would have no way of validating or invalidating that evidence.

        If security requires some secrecy (and I think it does), what is an acceptable level of transparency? And how can that secrecy be challenged, and by who?

        The easy answers to these questions are absolutes — either total secrecy or total transparency. But total transparency likely harms security while total secrecy likely harms freedom.

        The useful answers to these questions lie somewhere in the mushy middle. If I had a really good solution, I would offer it. But I don’t.

  7. To really make a difference, we need solutions to several problems:
    1. Non-law enforcement and nonmilitary people can buy guns that shoot too many bullets, too fast
    2. People being treated for certain types of mental illness and those domestic abusers named in protective orders can buy guns
    3. People on the no-fly list who can buy guns
    4. A no-fly list that may be based on too broad of a list of criteria or may not be administered correctly or …
    5. The management of semi and automatic guns and big magazines for guns already in the hands of non-law enforcement and nonmilitary–both registered and nonregistered
    6. The transfer of ownership of registered guns of all kinds within family, as well as between non-related parties whether for money, trade, gift or inheritance
    7. Elected officials who sign pledges to blindly vote one way or the other on important issues (i.e. taxes, environment, guns, budget, defense, trade) before they hear the facts from their colleagues, legislative staff and knowledgeable folks on all sides of the issues so middle ground can be found

  8. I own firearms and I fully support the second amendment that ensures that individuals the right to bear arms. However, the founding fathers couldn’t have foreseen the types of firearms that are available to us today. I do feel that there is no need for individuals to own assault type weapons (ar-15, ak-47, these types). They are not needed to hunt with, or sport shooting, etc. The fact is that with a very minor modification, these kinds of weapons can be made to become fully automatic, in other words like a machine gun. This makes me a little nervous. If law enforcement would “enforce” the laws that are already on the books this would go a long way to helping the situation. One law that could be passed that would help would be to close the loophole of the gun show sale. A lot of gun shows have guns being sold without background checks, or how about the individual who sells his gun to someone else without a background check? These are the kinds of things that could be looked at to help with the violence. Remember though, you could pile up several hundred guns and leave them there where you piled them up. I can safely say that not one of those guns would kill someone. Now, put the human element in the equation; a person picks one of those guns up and kills someone. Did the gun do the crime? No, people kill other people. As long as the human condition exists with evil intent no amount of gun control will stop the violence.

  9. Agreed. “Common sense” legislation needs to be based on common sense from top to bottom and not just selectively.

    This seems the very definition of a slippery slope argument. The current event horizon is being convicted of certain types of crimes or being diagnosed with certain types of mental illnesses. Once you pass those boundaries, there’s more agreement that you shouldn’t have a gun, but where’s the common sense upper bound?

    Charged with? Charged with conspiracy to commit? Those thresholds appear to violate due process and the innocent until proven guilty ideal. Of course, the confiscation/refusal could be temporary and contingent on a final court ruling.

    Suspected of? Investigated for? Wow. That could get all kinds of “inform on your neighbors” campaigns going. Get them on a list and watch the government swoop in! Given the secrecy of the terror-related lists and the processes that surround them, I don’t think that’s a useful upper bound for a country that talks so much about rule of law.

    As others have mentioned, the founders/framers could not have anticipated the advances in weapons technology. Could a regiment of redcoats have done all the damage at Pulse in the same amount of time?

    The founders/framers also could not have anticipated the growth in population density and changes in materials science. If almost everyone is living in a single-family, log/brick/stone structure that has to keep out the elements and wild animals, then a firearm may be necessary/safe(r). If you’ve got dozens or hundreds of people living in a building with walls that won’t stop sound or a fist, then almost any firearm is a risk to more than just the owner.

    Deification of the individual above/beyond society at large seems to be at the heart of a lot of our policy issues. We can’t fund a lot of initiatives because they don’t benefit influential voters. We can’t push mass transit, because nobody wants to give up their car/freedom and zoning/planning/development doesn’t allow it in many cases. We can’t push reasonable gun control, because influential people want to stand on a “right” that didn’t even pass judicial scrutiny until recently. And, so on……

  10. I stand in complete agreement with two premises: 1) the no-fly list and its association with secret policing is no standard for determining who may purchase a firearm, and 2) we must do SOMETHING to decrease access to firearms by those with unlawful intentions. Point of order regarding a previous comment: “Non-law enforcement and nonmilitary people can buy guns that shoot too many bullets, too fast.” These are called semi-automatics and fire one shot for each pull of the trigger. They can be fired only as fast as the shooter can pull the trigger. No faster. The most common rifles are .22’s and .223’s which are popular hunting, plinking and competition rounds. My grandpa’s traditional wooden stocked .22 squirrel rifle is a semi-automatic and works exactly the same. Today’s sporting rifles look scary to gun control advocates, but in reality are comfortable, function well and have low, controlled recoil. Like every other thing in our world, firearms have evolved and have been modernized for marketing and mass appeal, and yes, military performance for the true assault rifles. Military rifles are neither manufactured for or available to non-military or LE personnel without navigating through a lengthy and expensive process. Repeat; not available. Regarding magazine capacity; this is an issue that has no substance. A competent shooting enthusiast can switch magazines quickly with virtually no interruption. The more restrictions placed on capacity, the more Magpul thanks you for helping them sell more magazines. Limit firearms to single-shot capacity? I encourage readers to watch the talented athletes who participate in the Olympic Biathlon. While those are 5-shot magazine bolt-actions, they give the viewer some idea how fast a trained and dedicated marksman can operate. So, what would a shooting sports enthusiast and pro-constitutionalist consider appropriate? Perhaps an attack upon the problem itself. Can we limit terrorist access to guns via legislative gun control? If intelligent, critical thinking people think this is possible, we have lost the fight against terror. Can we stop, or at least reduce, mass shootings by that same legislative action? That is an actual possibility based upon recent incidents. However, while this may sound like a tired argument, take away access to guns and how do you then control access to explosives (fertilizer, anyone?), knives, clubs, chains and any other weapon which we humans can devise to maim one another. Yes, we can limit access to guns, but the problem of people with a mass murder mentality, and will to commit, remains. Attack the problem. Attack misinformation. Attack proposed laws that make us vulnerable. Yes, close the gun show loophole. Yes, require safety training and stiffen up background checks. Call radical Islam, “radical Islam.” and give it the respect it deserves as a true threat. Attack the generational poverty which permeates our entire society (economic, social, moral, ethical, spiritual, racial, educational) and stop the problems before they start. Do the the things which make sense to grow our society and our security, not undermine it, but we have to direct those efforts toward the root, not one of the branches. Take his car away and the alcoholic will find a way to the liquor store. Ban liquor and he’ll find a way to make it or bootleg it. Hey, how about treating alcoholism? Attack… the… problem. Thank you.

    1. I misspoke regarding military rifles being not available to LE personnel. They are indeed. My apologies for the error.

  11. As an Australian, where there was a mass shooting 15 years ago (approx) I cannot understand why there is a debate at all.
    Ban them!
    All of them, with the exceptions of those who really need guns, such as farmers with feral animal problems.
    After the Port Arthur shooting our Government, bravely, took on the politics and banned guns. They were never a available and prevalent in Aust as they are in the US, but nevertheless the opposition was noisy, strident and emotional.
    Guess what.. it worked.
    No more mass shootings, and the crime associated shootings that do occur are generally done with hand guns imported from the US by post.

  12. I am puzzled. What is the intention of the no fly list? Hypocrisy? How can anyone be for the no fly list but against using it to ban access to weapons? I understand perfectly well that there are reasons to be against the list in the first place. I live in Norway by the way. Your gun laws looks silly from where I am sitting.