What Is Wrong With Prohibiting Persons on the “No Fly” List From Purchasing Guns

The Senate rightly voted down an attempt to allow the Attorney General to prohibit people on the so-called “no fly list” from purchasing a firearm. Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that I don’t think this would stop any would-be terrorist from getting a gun (see Paris, France). Let’s also leave aside the fact that the two jihadists in San Bernardino California were not on the “no fly list”, so this law would have made no difference. Regardless of that, this is a terrible violation of Constitutional rights. The Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to own a gun. This important liberty cannot be taken away by the government without due process of law, and that due process must be adequate.

An examination of the proposed statute, contained in an Amendment to an unrelated bill, shows that the “due process” included was very weak. This provision starts near the bottom of page Page S8401 of the proposed Amendment:

“(b) In any case in which the Attorney General has denied the transfer of a firearm to a prospective transferee pursuant to section 922A of this title or has made a determination regarding a firearm permit applicant pursuant to section 922B of this title, an action challenging the determination may be brought against the United States. The petition shall be filed not later than 60 days after the petitioner has received actual notice of the Attorney General’s determination under section 922A or 922B of this title. The court shall sustain the Attorney General’s determination upon a showing by the United States by a preponderance of evidence that the Attorney General’s determination satisfied the requirements of section 922A or 922B, as the case may be. To make this showing, the United States may submit, and the court may rely upon, summaries or redacted versions of documents containing information the disclosure of which the Attorney General has determined would likely compromise national security. Upon request of the petitioner or the court’s own motion, the court may review the full, undisclosed documents ex parte and in camera. The court shall determine whether the summaries or redacted versions, as the case may be, are fair and accurate representations of the underlying documents. The court shall not consider the full, undisclosed documents in deciding whether the Attorney General’s determination satisfies the requirements of section 922A or 922B.”. https://www.congress.gov/amendment/114th-congress/senate-amendment/2910/text

This proposed “due process” has no automatic hearing, just the right to file a petition. A person’s right to a hearing is waived after 60 days of “actual notice” -presumably forever. It contains no right to even examine the documents being used against petitioner. Documents are examined by a judge “ex parte” -which means without the defendant/petitioner present. It uses a “preponderance of the evidence” standard instead of “beyond a reasonable doubt”, like in a criminal case. I am not even sure it allows for one to call witnesses in one’s favor or to confront one’s accuser in court, as required under the 6th Amendment. It’s about like the standard the Department of Motor Vehicles would uses to deprive someone of their driver’s license, which is not a Constitutionally protected right.

The “no fly list”, even as applied to its original intended purpose -flying on an airplane- is fraught with problems and possible Constitutional violations. (See https://www.aclu.org/news/aclu-files-lawsuit-challenging-unconstitutional-no-fly-list)  The ACLU has argued that even its original intended purpose is unconstitutional. Furthermore, when it is applied to something like owning a gun, which is a specifically enumerated right under the Bill of Rights, then it is just doubling down on what was already probably a bad law to begin with.

If this law had passed, what would have been next? Imagine the following hypothetical scenario: What if the government decided to deny anyone on the no-fly list a computer because terrorists use computers to meet each other and conspire to commit their crimes? This would clearly have First Amendment freedom of speech and freedom of association implications, and the level of due process required to restrict that freedom are on a par with what would be required before you can send someone to prison. Similarly, the due process required prior to restrict someone’s Second Amendment rights, must be on an equal level.