THOMAS TASCHINGER: Gun bans for watch lists are good but glitchy

July 3, 2016 GMT

It seems like a good idea and it is - banning people on the “no fly” list or suspected terrorists from buying guns. But it’s also not the magic solution to a nasty problem.

For starters, the “no fly” lists are not always accurate. The conservative columnist Cal Thomas and liberal senator Edward Kennedy were both on them at one time. Clearly, they didn’t need to be.

Even more disturbing is the likelihood that some low-level bureaucrat put them there for political revenge. Thomas has written that it took him a while to get his name removed. In the meantime, his airport boarding was inconvenient and humiliating. Would you like to go through that?

The problem hasn’t gone away either. In a recent column, Thomas noted that 72 members of the Department of Homeland Security were on the terrorism watch list. If that can happen to them, it can happen to anyone.

It’s not even easy confirming the real terrorists once you think you have found them. The Orlando nightclub shooter had been investigated twice by the FBI for suspected links to Islamic radicalism. But like many a mass killer, he operated just below the radar screen of exposure before he erupted. He may have seemed shaky, but he had not yet tipped his hand and really couldn’t be branded a terrorist.

That story is probably being repeated all across the country. The FBI gets a tip about someone saying controversial things or posting something suspicious on social media. Unless the suspect is outright calling for jihad, it can be difficult to assess his threat. Is he a killer about to explode, or a loudmouth blowing off steam? How far is too far? Every case is different, and guessing someone’s mental state is tricky.

Even when truly sketchy people are put on these lists, how long should they stay there? It would be nice to keep them on a year at a time and keep extending that ban as authorities see fit. But it will take a lot of time and money to monitor these individuals, and you know that eventually one of them will challenge his listing in the courts.

That’s where it really gets dicey. The unpleasant reality is that these individuals have not committed any crimes. They are merely suspected of being capable of criminal behavior in the future. If that sounds like the plot of the Tom Cruise movie “Minority Report,” that’s because it’s darned close.

The bottom line is that we need these lists to combat terrorism, but they won’t be as effective as some people think. And if a judge somewhere - or the U.S. Supreme Court - strikes down the whole concept some day, don’t be surprised either.

As with any kind of crime, prevention is problematic. The best advice, though, is familiar: Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.


Thomas Taschinger, TTaschinger@BeaumontEnterprise.com, is the editorial page editor of The Beaumont Enterprise. Follow him on Twitter at @PoliticalTom