Should People on the No Fly List Be Allowed to Buy a Rifle?

12/03/2015 10:16 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2016

This makes perfect sense. Why would we allow someone who is a suspected terrorist who can't even board a plane to purchase a firearm in the US? It makes sense but it is not that simple. The late US Senator from Massachusetts Ted Kennedy was on the no fly list. How many other Senator Kennedy's are there who don't have the resources to get their name off the no fly list? There are too many cases of false positives to list in this article but some can be found here.

This issue is one that raises the question about who we are as a nation. Terrorism does that. The issue is do we deny someone on the list a firearms or do we still afford due process to suspects?

The most obvious question is: has anyone on the no fly list committed an act of violence with a gun? If the answer is yes, does that justify taking away someone else's rights? If the answer is no, is this a solution in search of a problem?

Gun rights advocates argue many things is wrong with this such as the lack of due process for citizens, the use of the list to deprive citizens of their Second Amendment right. They may say it is a slippery slope.

If the standard used to be 'innocent until proven guilty' under this and other proposals it is becoming 'innocent until suspected.' I don't think that is all too American. Long time FBI director J. Edgar Hoover used to keep lists. In the 1950s Senator McCarthy used to advocate that certain people be put on lists. Lists can be wrong.

I am not pro- or anti-gun. As a state representative, I am less concerned with the end product than I am the process used to defend the Constitution to arrive at an end product. Process is more important than product because with a bad process, we can't fix a bad product. But with a good process, we can fix a bad product.

This issue is being thrown into the spotlight because of the recent terror attacks in Paris and the recent shootings in San Bernardino, California, which are at the time of this writing yet to be determined if terrorism related.

With respect to the Paris terror attacks, the issue in the US became one of whether or not we should allow Syrian refugees into the US because ISIS terrorists may come in with the refugee program. The problem with that thinking is that all of the terrorists in the Paris attacks were European nationals; none are known to be refugees. But the fear persists.

And in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings on December 2, a fear has been kindled that we may allow people on the no fly watch list the ability to obtain a Firearms Identification, aka an FID, which can be used to purchase a rifle, including the .223 caliber rifles used in San Bernardino. The problem is that the shooters were no on any law enforcement watch list, never mind the no fly list.

Each of these examples, and there are many others, reveal that sometimes we have a solution and are searching for a problem.

Some people may argue that even if most people on the terror watch list are there for good reasons but that there are a few people on the no fly list, isn't it a good trade off to keep the guns out of the hands of the many even at the expense of a few innocent? I don't know if it is.

What Else Should People On the No Fly List Be Deprived Of?

Along these lines of thinking, if this is good policy - and I am not yet sure if it is - should we also deprive someone who is on the no fly list welfare benefits? What about public housing? What about access to public college education? Could denying these things to a suspect push them over the edge to become a criminal?

If it is acceptable to deny someone innocent a firearms ID because it comes at the greater good of justice, along these lines of thinking, how about deprive them the right to appeal their placement on the no fly list? Would we torture suspects on the no fly list for information about ISIS or al Qaeda even if we are increasing the odds we are going to include someone who is a false positive and should not be on the no fly list?

This line of thinking is not unlike the question about getting rid of the death penalty because we may execute one innocent person.

Do we start depriving citizens of due process because we are afraid of what others might do?

I am not sure that the deprivation of one person's rights, and to have someone be suspected by their government of ill intent against their fellow countrymen and women, and to be thought of as untrustworthy when all in error defines who we are as virtuous Americans.

As a politician, do I need to worry that if one person on the no fly list gets a gun and harms someone if after I voted against linking the no fly list to the FID in Massachusetts, would my political career be over when I am trying to defend due process of innocent people? Should I worry about my political future or worry about just doing what I think is right? What if what is right is not popular and gets me unelected?

Do people who defend their Second Amendment rights love their right to a gun more than they hate suspected terrorists? Or is that not the issue? Is the issue one of due process? If I know the voters in my district I would say that it is actually both - for some voters I know it would be just one; for others both.

There are endless philosophical questions to this seemingly straightforward and pragmatic question.

Terrorists Are Winning (At the Moment)

As of right now, we are afraid. Some people in America are talking about denying Muslim refugees or Syrian refugees entry into the country because of fear that someone from ISIS will slip in with refugees. Some people are talking about depriving people who have not been adjudicated and with no court oversight a firearms ID and consequently the ability to legally purchase a firearm. Some states want to deny the former and have already passed into law the latter.

As of right now, terrorists are winning. Terrorism is about causing terror or severe crippling fear. Terrorism is the deliberate use of violence of threat of violence intended to cause fear for political purposes.

But alas, we can't be a virtuous righteous nation only when it is easy and convenient, or when we are not afraid. We can't claim to be free but then violate Fourth Amendment rights, or Second Amendment rights, or the Eighth Amendment, or any other rights when we are afraid. If we deny rights when we are afraid we are not free from fear or the terrorist.

I am not concerned about who is or isn't on the no fly list; lists can and are often wrong. But I do want to keep guns out of the hands of people who will abuse them. I'm not sure if a list created from unknown methods that has proven to be wrong on many occasions is a good way to achieve that.

Maybe I am wrong. Maybe some things are just so obvious that they should be done despite my belief in process being more important than product. Maybe the no fly list is perfect and everyone on it belongs there. The late Senator Ted Kennedy and others might disagree.

Paul Heroux is a state representative from Massachusetts on the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. He lived and worked in the Middle East, and worked in Jail and Prison. He has master's degrees in international relations, criminology, and public administration.