After Democrats in the Senate staged a filibuster in support of gun control measures, their colleagues in the House have begun a “sit-in” aimed at embarrassing Republicans into allowing a vote on a measure that would restrict the ability of suspected terrorists to legally buy guns. The move is fantastic political theater. It’s also a tremendous waste of popular support and activist energy in support of a measure that isn’t just ineffective but also actively offensive.
The Democratic proposal has been catch-phrased and hashtagged as “no fly, no buy,” because it would prevent people who end up on government terrorism watchlists, including the “no fly list,” from purchasing firearms. This would do little to reduce gun violence, but it would add an additional layer of surveillance and government scrutiny to a particular class of people.
House Republicans today pulled the cameras in defense of the principle that people on the No-Fly list should be able to buy AR-15s.— Joy Reid (@JoyAnnReid) June 22, 2016
That certainly sounds like a solid principle on which to take a stand—terrorists shouldn’t have AR-15s! Meanwhile, most gun deaths in the United States are not caused by suspected terrorists armed with military-style semi-automatic rifles. The vast majority of gun deaths—suicides as well as homicides—are caused by handguns, and the majority of people firing those guns are not suspected terrorists (which invariably refers, in contemporary discourse, to Muslims, and no other groups or individuals dedicated to political violence).
The no-fly list is a civil rights disaster by every conceivable standard. It is secret, it disproportionately affects Arab-Americans, it is error-prone, there is no due process or effective recourse for people placed on the list, and it constantly and relentlessly expands. As of 2014, the government had a master watchlist of 680,000 people, forty percent of whom had “no recognized terrorist group affiliation.” This is both an absurdly large number of people to arbitrarily target in gun control legislation, and far, far too few to have any meaningful effect on actual gun ownership, let alone gun violence.
Perhaps such a bill makes political sense as a sort of desperate attempt to get something through a conservative-dominated Congress. But if it is, as it appears to be, more of an effort to highlight the unpopular extremism of Republicans on gun issues, it is a stupid and counterproductive hill to theatrically die on. Almost any popular and previously debated gun control measure would have made a better symbolic lost cause. Democrats could be staging a sit-in in support of universal background checks* and waiting periods, nationally standard gun licensing and training requirements, and tougher restrictions on where and how guns are sold. All of those, or even any one of those, would have been more defensible both politically and morally. Instead House Democrats are going to the mat for a shitty, racist, useless bill.
Since the San Bernardino shootings (or even before), an easy, cynical predication has been that the only form of gun control with a realistic shot of being enacted in the near future would be measures that would ban only Muslims from purchasing guns. As is too often the case, Democrats seem determined to prove cynics right.
[Correction: Expanded background checks are indeed a measure Democrats are currently demanding a vote on.]