The problem with no guns for those on the No-Fly list

The Observer editorial board

President Barack Obama addresses the nation about terrorism Sunday.
President Barack Obama addresses the nation about terrorism Sunday. AP

It’s telling that a good bit of the attention from President Obama’s Sunday address on terrorism has focused on a single line of policy.

The unremarkable speech offered no domestic initiatives or strategic pivots in the battle against the Islamic State. The president did call for national unity in the face of terrorism, but that, too, was nothing new.

With that plea for harmony, however, came a poke at Republicans in Washington.

“To begin with,” Obama said, “Congress should act to make sure no one on a No-Fly list is able to buy a gun. What could possibly be the argument for allowing a terrorist suspect to buy a semi-automatic weapon?”

It was mostly a political line – a way to accurately illustrate how far the other party will go to avoid any restrictions on guns. The president made the same point in his weekly address Saturday, which followed a failed attempt by Democrats last week to introduce No-Fly/no guns legislation.

Republicans dutifully took the bait, panning the idea because people wrongly on the list would unfairly be denied their gun-purchasing rights. “These are everyday Americans that have nothing to do with terrorism,” said presidential candidate Marco Rubio on Sunday. “They wind up on the No-Fly list, there’s no due process or any way to get your name removed from it in a timely fashion, and now they’re having their Second Amendment rights impeded upon.”

He has a point – at least about due process. Some background: The No-Fly list is a subset of the so-called terrorist watch list maintained by the FBI’s Terrorist Screen. The No-Fly list contains an estimated 20,000 names, fewer than 1,000 of which are Americans.

Some people are on the list erroneously. Some are there even after being acquitted of terrorism-related offenses. But getting your name off the list is an onerous and lengthy process that doesn’t, but should, include a hearing before a judge. That’s why the American Civil Liberties Union has sued to change the No-Fly rules.

Republican concerns about due process might be more believable if they’d fretted when people were merely kept off of planes. Take away the right to guns, however, and they have a problem.

That incongruence shows how difficult it will be, even in the wake of a homegrown terror event in San Bernardino, for Congress to make progress on something so basic as keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of dangerous people.

Expanding the No-Fly list to guns could be one small step toward that, but people on the list should first be allowed to have quick and fair redress if they feel they shouldn’t be there. Otherwise, another line in the president’s address last night – the one about not “abandoning our values or giving into fear” – will ring as hollow as any words he said.