In America's gun-culture reality, the NRA is making sense: Neil Macdonald

Donald Trump plans to meet with the National Rifle Association to discuss denying individuals on the terror watch list the ability to buy a gun. The Donald should expect an earful about the problems with relying on a flawed list alone to deny a constitutional right.

Gun group believes terror watch list is a problematic tool for denying a constitutional right

Gary Blihovde, Jamesville, Wis., tries out a rifle scope at the National Rifle Association convention last month in Louisville, Ky. (Mark Humphrey/Associated Press)

From the acid trip that is American gun culture comes a new and urgent concern: Should terror suspects be allowed to own guns?

On the face of it, the question is almost sublimely stupid.

And yet, it's burning bright at the moment in America's highly reactive polity.

Democrats on Capitol Hill staged a filibuster this week to force a vote on the subject.

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy launched a nearly 15-hour filibuster to demand a vote on gun-control measures. (CSPAN/Associated Press)

And Donald Trump, who in the past few months has morphed into a pro-gun absolutist, suddenly has concerns, too.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee tweeted: "I will be meeting with the NRA, who has endorsed me, about not allowing people on the terrorist watch list, or the no-fly list, to buy guns."

Rush to do something, anything

This would all appear to be, at long last, a sliver of sanity. Convicted felons, drug abusers, people diagnosed with mental illness and illegal immigrants are already barred from buying guns. Why not terror suspects?

In fact, though, the question of extending that ban to people on the so-called terror watch list is a complex civil rights conundrum, and the NRA is making at least as much sense at the moment as the politicians rushing to do something, anything, after the Orlando massacre.

To be clear, the Orlando massacre, like so many others, was carried out with a legally purchased Sig Sauer MCX, an AR-15-style assault rifle, a fearsome weapon with military origins, and it was purchased by a man whose name was for a time on the terror watch list, who reportedly declared fealty to ISIS, and who was suspected by the FBI of having contact with radical Islamists.

Moreover, he wasn't the first such case. Other multiple shootings classified as domestic terrorism by U.S. authorities, and carried out by self-declared jihadists, have been carried out with legally purchased firearms.

And to be clear about something else, the NRA thinks every law-abiding citizen should own an AR-15: the organization's website, at the moment, features a video touting the assault rifle as "Americans' best defence against terror and crime."

In the NRA's logic, if the patrons of that Orlando gay club had all had AR-15s slung over their shoulders, Omar Mateen would have been stopped dead. Donald Trump has said exactly the same thing.

A shirt worn by an NRA supporter. (Associated Press)

The NRA's problem is with the watch list itself, and it's not the only organization with concerns.

The list is a massive, sprawling database that functions in the background of American life, relying on secret data, some of it provided by foreign intelligence agencies.

According to congressional testimony from the director of the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, it contained about 800,000 names in 2014. The list is fed by the National Counterterrorism Center, which maintains an even larger list, well in excess of a million names.

Until recently, you had no right to know if your name was on it. And even now, if your name is on it, you have no right to know why.

Although the names on the list are deemed "known or suspected terrorists" by federal authorities, the vast majority have never been charged with an offence, let alone convicted.

You might appear on the list if you have had direct or even indirect contact with a terror suspect.

Thin proof of malfeasance

Being on the list can ruin your life, cost you your job, and make any contact with police very unpleasant indeed. Once you are on it, it is notoriously difficult to get off, and even at that, thousands of names have been removed for lack of even thin proof of malfeasance.

The no-fly list, which is a subset of the terror watch list, has been ridiculed in news reports. It has listed infant children, people with a name similar to a terror suspect and even the likes of late senator Ted Kennedy and civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis.

According to classified documents obtained and posted on The Intercept website, run by Glenn Greenwald, the man who shook the secret world with his expose of the Edward Snowden documents, nearly half the names on the terror watch list are officially designated as having "no official terrorist group affiliation."

So, while Donald Trump and congressional Democrats are proposing something that sounds eminently sensible, the NRA's logic, which it will no doubt communicate to Trump in their upcoming meeting, is coherent: owning a firearm is a constitutional right, and no constitutional right should be suppressed on the strength of an arbitrary list that relies on secret data that's sometimes faulty.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump plans to meet with the NRA to discuss preventing individuals on the terror watch list from buying guns. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

The American Civil Liberties Union, hardly a constituent of the gun-toting Republican base, has taken more or less the same position.

The whole issue, of course, is uniquely American.

In most Western countries, owning a gun is not a right, and restrictions are severe.

In much of the rest of the world, being on an official terror watch list means you're probably already dead or in a dungeon, missing half your fingernails and teeth.

Bizarre compromise

But in the United States, a right is a right, and nearly impossible to supersede, even if it's turned the country into an emporium of high-powered delights for extremists bent on killing.

So, authorities have arrived at a bizarre compromise: you can be a terror suspect and buy a gun.

According to Congress's Government Accountability Office, of the 2,477 people on the terror watch list who attempted to buy guns between 2004 and 2015, 2,265, or 91 per cent, were permitted to go through with the sale.

Bizarre, perhaps, but that's America. Live free or die, and all that.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.