A Philosopher's Blog

No Fly, No Buy

Posted in Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 6, 2016

Departing BFI as BOE008 Heavy

In the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando, there has been a push for the idea of “no fly, no buy.” This is the sound bite slogan for banning people on the No Fly List from buying guns. There are two main versions of this proposal. One, backed by Democrats, is that the No Fly List data would become part of the background check to purchase a firearm and would prevent a person on the list from buying a gun legally. The other, backed by Republicans, gives the government a limited time frame to establish probable cause for banning a person on the list from buying a gun. For the sake of this discussion, I am oversimplifying the fine distinctions between the various lists. Fortunately, the general discussion does not require such fine distinctions.

Both parties agree with the fundamental justification for the proposal: guns should be kept out of the hands of terrorists. This is often described in the media as a “no brainer.” While I agree that it is best if terrorists do not have guns, this justification is something of a deceit: being on the No Fly List is not the same as being a terrorist. Rather, being on the list means that a person (might be) suspected of having some connection to terrorism. To use the obvious analogy, it is a “no brainer” to want to keep guns out of the hands of criminals—but it is another matter to want to keep guns out of the hands of people who are suspected of maybe having some connection to crime. As such, the “keeping guns out of the hands of terrorists” is a rhetorical point that has a very limited connection to the actual facts. This leads to my concerns about using the No Fly List as a no-buy list.

The first point of concern, one shared by the ACLU, is that the No Fly List seems to be poorly managed. The reason this is a problem is that a person can end up on the list who actually has no connection to terrorism at all. Since the program is secret, the mechanics of ending up on the list are known only to a few—but it has been clearly established that the list is “riddled with errors.” Using such a flawed list is clearly problematic. This could, of course, be addressed by improving list management.

The second point of concern, also shared by the ACLU, is that the No Fly List seems to be a clear violation of the right to due process. As such, the list itself seems to be unconstitutional. It was, of course, accepted as part of the grand sacrifice of rights to the delusion and illusion of security following 9/11. Unfortunately, the fires of fear are relentlessly stoked, making addressing these violations unlikely. Obviously enough, using an unconstitutional process as the basis for forbidding people from buying guns is problematic. This could be addressed by revising the process to follow due process or amending the constitution to change due process.

The third point of concern is that the current interpretation of the Second Amendment is as an individual right to keep and bear arms. A look back at the history of the Second Amendment shows that this has not always been the case; but what matters legally is the current interpretation. Given that the No Fly List is flawed and seems to be unconstitutional, to deny a person his Second Amendment rights on such a basis would be unacceptable. To use an analogy, imagine that in addition to “no fly, no buy” there was a proposal for “no seating, no tweeting.” On this proposal, people on the No Fly List would be banned from exercising their First Amendment right to free speech. This would be absurd. By parity of reasoning, using the list to violate the Second Amendment right would be just as absurd.

It could be objected that the danger presented by guns is far greater than the danger presented by words. While this does have some appeal, the saying “the pen is mightier than the sword” exists for a reason. While it is true that guns can kill, words have great power—after all, when people discuss terrorism they often focus on the process of radicalization—and expression (propaganda in various forms) is a large part of this. There is also the fact that, once again, being on the No Fly List is not the same as being an actual terrorist—so a person’s rights would be denied on the basis of an unreliable violation of due process.

It could be objected that there should not be an individual right to keep and bear arms. That is, the Second Amendment should be repealed or reinterpreted. While this could be done, it does not address the actual issue at hand. After all, the issue is not about what the Second Amendment should be, but about whether or not the “no fly, no buy” proposal is a good one or not. If no one could buy, then the “no buy” would make “no fly, no buy” pointless.

Another objection is the “low impact” counter. This is a general tactic in which it is argued that a proposal is acceptable because it would not really have much of an impact. In the case of “no fly, no buy”, people point to the fact that of the 192,956,397 background checks between February 2004 and May, 2016 there have been 2,477 matches with a watch list and only 212 denied transactions. As such, the argument goes, there should be no real objection to “no fly, no buy” because it will almost certainly have a miniscule impact on citizens.

There are two easy and obvious replies to the “low impact” counter. The first is that just because a policy is likely to have low impact, it does not follow that it is thus acceptable. As argued above, the “no fly, no buy” proposal is highly problematic and the fact that it will not deny too many people their rights is hardly good grounds for accepting it.

The second is that the “low impact” shows that the proposal will not be very effective at achieving the results that are supposed to motivate its acceptance. To be specific, the proposal would seem to have little or no impact on gun violence in the United States. As it stands, it seems that there have been no mass shootings that would have been prevented by “no fly, no buy.” While the Orlando shooter was on a list, he was removed—so the proposal would not have prevented that shooting. Unless, of course, there was also a proposal passed into law that would prevent people from being removed from the list or imposing a permanent gun buying ban on anyone who is ever on the list. These would certainly be problematic.

Overall, “no fly, no buy” seems to be a case of political theater—the illusion of trying to address a very real problem in a way that actually fails to address that problem while also violating rights. As such, I am against “no fly, no buy.”


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10 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on July 6, 2016 at 8:25 am

  2. TJB said, on July 7, 2016 at 4:32 pm

    Secret lists? What are the Dems thinking?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 8, 2016 at 5:40 pm

      Well, they might think they are doing what they think people want.

      • WTP said, on July 8, 2016 at 7:03 pm

        …and constitutional rights be damned. Why we even bother to pay lip service to that silly old 220 and some odd years old document is beyond me.

  3. david halbstein said, on July 8, 2016 at 8:15 am

    I can certainly see a rationale for the “No Fly” list to be considered as part of a background check, but only to trigger an audit – and it should work both ways. If a person trying to buy a gun is denied the right to purchase because of his inclusion on that list, he should have the right to know exactly why he is on that list and given the opportunity to make a case for removal. The burden of proof should be on the government, and if they cannot make a case, the name should be expunged from the list -perhaps with damages payable to the individual.

    To use an analogy, if a person is denied credit because of a major negative report sometime in his past, that negative report in and of itself should not be used to categorically deny him credit today. The burden should be on the lender, to make a case as to how and why that inclusion is valid and should be used to deny credit. If they are unable to make the case, the credit report should be modified. Of course, this analogy deals only with private transactions between individuals, or an individual and a corporation – when it is the US Government on one side the issue becomes much larger in a very crucial way.

    Your post draws an analogy to the First Amendment, but doesn’t go far enough. Under the first amendment, we have the Constitutional right to petition for governmental redress of grievances. When a law is considered absolute, when a person’s inclusion on a secret list makes him a target of that law without the right to redress, this is a clear violation of one of the most fundamental rights we have as Americans. There is a reason that this is first in the list of Constitutional amendments.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 8, 2016 at 5:40 pm

      I certainly agree that these secret lists are unconstitutional.

    • WTP said, on July 8, 2016 at 6:18 pm

      Agree in principle here but regarding

      The burden should be on the lender, to make a case as to how and why that inclusion is valid and should be used to deny credit.

      No. The money belongs to the lender and/or the depositors in that lender’s institution, if such be the case. It should be to their discretion who they lend the money to. Now if that old information is in error, that is another matter.

      • david halbstein said, on July 9, 2016 at 8:23 am

        That’s a very good point. I agree. I don’t want to get into the nuances of banking practices and regulations, but conceptually I think you are correct.

      • TJB said, on July 9, 2016 at 9:32 am

        I wouldn’t object if the Fed would lend me a couple of billion $$ at zero percent.

        • WTP said, on July 9, 2016 at 10:32 am

          I’ll see what I can do, but first where’s that 20 bucks you owe me?

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