Accustomed as we have become to various scenarios which involve corruption, cronyism, incompetence, foolishness and favoritism, we were nonetheless surprised to learn that last Thursday, a vote was taken by the House Judiciary which defeated an anti-terrorism initiative which we, in our naivete, believed would have been unobjectionable.
The proposal would give the Attorney General of the United States authority to deny the transfer of a firearm to someone who is on the government's Terrorism Watch List. It came as an amendment to H.R. 1800, offered by Representative Michael Quigley of Illinois. The amendment is only one sentence long, although it is a long sentence. Here it is, in full:
"ATTORNEY GENERAL AUTHORITY TO DENY TRANSFER OF FIREARMS TO TERRORISTS.
"The Attorney General may deny the transfer of a firearm if information obtained through the use of authorities under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 U.S.C. 1801 et seq.) indicates that a prospective firearm transferee is or has been engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism, and the Attorney General has a reasonable belief that the prospective transferee may use a firearm in connection with terrorism."
The Quigley amendment was defeated by a party line vote, 11 Democrats in support, 21 Republicans in opposition. Congressman Peter King, Republican of New York State and chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, has introduced similar legislation, also pending before the Judiciary Committee and not yet brought to a vote.
The quest for authority to deny a firearm to a potential terrorist began in the Bush administration, but such a bill was twice rejected by Congress, largely because of opposition by the National Rifle Association, one of the most powerful lobbies in the United States. The chair of the House Judiciary Committee is currently Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, a state where gun ownership by individuals is highly valued.
The House decision was noted that afternoon by Mayor Bloomberg in a press conference dealing with the arrest of two lone wolf terrorists in Queens. He said: "Let me just point out that even as the NYPD continues to do such great work in this area, today there was a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on a measure that would have prevented people on the terrorist watch list from purchasing guns. I'm sorry to report that measure failed. Our Coalition of Mayors Against Illegal Guns has urged Congress to pass such restrictions, and last night's arrest is a perfect illustration why."
In an April 28th Associated Press article, Eileen Sullivan reported that last year, according to FBI figures, 247 people on the terror watch list "who were allowed to buy weapons did so after going through required background checks as required by federal law." Her article is a thorough analysis of the issue, citing both sides. It is well worth reading; you can find the article here.
Chris Brown, a reporter for Media Matters, a liberal media watchdog, wrote an article whose title asks a question that is easy to answer: "WILL THE NRA KEEP SUPPORTING THE LOOPHOLE LETTING PEOPLE ON TERROR WATCH BUY GUNS?" It is a good example of advocacy journalism. Click here to read Brown's piece, which has links of its own.
There are people out there who strongly oppose this bill, which seems so sensible to many others. Their position is expressed by the National Rifle Association, whose staff has prepared a brief stating their case. Although we disagree with them, we want you to have the opportunity to read their arguments, some based on Constitutional and libertarian principles, others more pragmatic. Click here to read the NRA brief. From a professional point of view, it is a competent piece of work. We recall that in The Merchant of Venice, by W.S., Antonio says: "The Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose."
Each side in this controversy refers to the other as "extremists". It was not, however, leftist radicals who killed 169 people at the Oklahoma City federal building on April 19, 1995, deliberately marking the second anniversary of the Branch Davidian fire in Waco, Texas, which killed 54 adults and 21 children. That is the day before Hitler's birthday, April 20, a date the teenaged Columbine murderers commemorated in 1999 by shooting to death twelve fellow students and one teacher and injuring 21 others. Six people died when Congresswoman Giffords was shot on January 8 while greeting constituents in her Arizona district.
The arguments made by the NRA parallel in some ways those of leftist organizations who defend terrorists by claiming that their Constitutional rights have been abridged at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere by detention, interrogation, rendition and other practices intended to elicit information from those unwilling to supply it voluntarily. Like the NRA, these groups challenge the executive branch exercising its powers, and sometimes they prevail in the judicial branch, which is traditionally more sensitive to individual liberties than the branch whose elected leaders have historically felt a greater responsibility to keep Americans safe from harm, as, for example, when President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the War of the Rebellion, or the War Between the States, if you prefer the Southern version.
Back to the present, the NRA's challenge to executive authority is manifest in the legislative branch, where its influence is strong, due to its large membership scattered in swing states, and its effective lobbying and political action. President Obama and the Justice Department are regularly accused of violating the rights and desires of gun owners. The NRA website says: "On the Second Amendment, Don't Believe Obama". The far left, on the other hand, depends for sustenance on occasional judicial victories. New York Civic does not rush to take sides in these political-judicial disputes, the Federal issues involved being far above our pay grade, a phrase that went viral after Senator Obama was asked his views on abortion in 2008.
The Quigley amendment does not forbid possible terrorists from purchasing guns, it simply gives the Attorney General the right to prevent such a transaction if he has "a reasonable belief that the prospective transferee may use a firearm in connection with terrorism." Does that not appear sensible? Most transactions are likely to be approved, but there is value in the Justice Department knowing which potential terrorists are buying guns.
We did not anticipate the result in the Judiciary Committee, but we should have foreseen it considering the legislative history of this matter. We know that any form of restriction on the sale or use of firearms engenders fierce resistance by a spectrum ranging from hunters to survivalists, possibly including both Birchers and birthers. What we did not realize was that, even when the prevention of terrorists from taking the lives of Americans is at stake, the right to transfer firearms still takes precedence.
God bless America. His blessing may be necessary for its protection.