To Fly, To Shoot, Perchance to Dream

We have a “No Fly” list in this country. It is supposed to keep people who are terrorist threats from boarding airplanes where their shoe or underwear bombs could do great damage. This is generally a good thing, but the no fly list has a couple of problems. The problems have been reported regularly for a long time, most recently in the 12/8/15 New York Times (Push for Gun Curbs Tied to No-Fly List Puts Republicans on the Spot, Alan Rappeport, NYT 12/7/15).. The problems are both pretty egregious and should have been fixed years (possibly decades) ago:

  1. According to some estimates, of the 700,000 or so people on the list, more than half don’t belong there.
  2. Once on the list, whether you belong there or not, there seems to be no way to get off.

This is apparently an easy list to get on. Elizabeth Pipkin, a California trial lawyer, says “there is really no criteria for these lists. The government can put anyone on it for any reason.” (Op cit.) She spent nine years in litigation getting one client off the list. In the government’s defense, the client has one of those funny-sounding, non-American names, which was probably enough to get her on the list in the first place.

That the problem is of long standing is evidenced by the fact that Ted Kennedy was once one the list. He got off the list, but it wasn’t easy for him either.

That this problem exists and has gone unaddressed for more than 20 years speaks volumes about the effectiveness (and value) of the Congress, a body in our government that has within its power the ability to fix such problems. The situation is ridiculous and should have been fixed in the previous millennium. But wait, there is more.

In the past few days, several, including the President, have proposed that one response to the shootings in San Bernardino should be to prevent people on the no-fly list from purchasing weapons. This seems like a no brainer, especially given GAO’s report that between 2004 and 2014, 2000 people on the list did buy weapons. Who could argue that people on the terrorist watch list should be able to buy weapons? Quite a few, apparently, several of them running for president.

There seem to be three main arguments, all of them specious.

  1. Marco—oops, sorry; respect—Senator Marco argues that more than half of the people on the no-fly list do not belong there. They are just ordinary citizens (many of them Muslim) going about their business, and we shouldn’t impinge on their rights by not allowing them to buy guns. News flash Senator: not being able to fly impinges on their rights, too. This is, indeed, a big problem. Get off your ass and fix it.
  2. The no-fly list is just a part of the terrorist watch list (more than a million people on that list), so making this change would not come close to solving the whole problem. That is true, but not relevant. If you have a gas leak in your house, you don’t refuse to fix it because the repair won’t also fix the leak in your roof. No change to gun ownership rules will fix all problems associated with guns. But, almost any change would demonstrate some willingness to address gun issues, and that would be a step forward. Congress, show a little bit of courage. Get off your ass and fix something.
  3. “Guns aren’t the problem. People are the problem.” Or, “mental illness is the problem.” Guns by themselves aren’t a problem. They can be useful. They can be fun. They can increase your sense of security (although for most gun owners, it is doubtful that they get more than a false sense of security—look at all they did for Reeva Steenkamp). But, 12-step attendees are taught that anything that causes problems, is a problem. Congress show a little bit of courage. Mentally ill people using guns is certainly a problem. I’ll bet there are things we could do to address that problem. The Congress would be the body that could address that. Get off your ass and do something.

We have averaged more than one mass shooting per day this year according to some reports reports 353 so far this year. Mother Jones puts the number at 4, so there is some controversy over how to count these things. What other country in the world even has something like None. They wouldn’t have anything to do. Even if the number is 4, that’s a problem (and it doesn’t include the number of individual shootings per year, which is also a problem).

I haven’t heard anyone yet argue that a mass shooting every day is perfectly normal, and no problem at all, but I’m expecting it soon.



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