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No Fly, No Buy? No Way

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., addresses the crowd after a "sit in," on the House floor, on Capitol Hill, Thursday, June 23, 2016 in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., addresses the crowd after a "sit in," on the House floor, on Capitol Hill, Thursday, June 23, 2016 in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)
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The sight of Democrats in the chamber of the House holding a sit-in over the lack of a vote on gun control almost stirred in me nostalgia for the good old days, when the aggrieved in society regularly took to the streets in protest.

However, when people like House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer began comparing this protest to the Civil Rights struggle, and the sitters took to singing, “We Shall Overcome,” what struck me was the incongruity of it all.

For the record, the Democrats' protestations are over the failure of House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wiconsin) to bring two particular measures to a vote, the so-called No Fly-No Buy legislation, and expanded background checks for those buying a firearm.

Given the problems with the No Fly List, it’s clear that it should not be used as the basis to take away the rights of any American.

I may be an arch-liberal where most things are concerned, but on guns I try to listen to both sides. My fear is that with such a hot-button issue, common sense can easily get trampled by emotion. The result could be the passage of feel-good measures that serve no purpose but to make us believe we’ve accomplished something, when in fact we’ve done nothing.

The sit-in lasted 25 hours, ending Thursday afternoon. It gained a lot of attention for the gun control measures in question. The problem with it was that it was done in the name of a bill – No Fly-No Buy – that would ban anyone on the No Fly List from buying a firearm — that is so Constitutionally flawed it should never be made law. As for expanded background checks, this is a great idea whose time has come, but it’s a no-go with this Congress.

So the sit-in was kind of a bust.

The problem with No Fly-No Buy is the foundation upon which the law would be based. The No Fly List is riddled with problems, from its secrecy (a violation of the Privacy Act), to its over-inclusiveness – the late Sen. Edward Kennedy was on the list at one point. The liberal lion even spoke out against the list, worried that the rights of non-senators could very easily be violated.

It would be great if we had a list of bad guys, and all we had to do was simply make sure they couldn’t buy weapons or fertilizer or anything that can cause mass casualties. But it’s not that simple. Given the problems with the No Fly List, it’s clear that it should not be used as the basis to take away the rights of any American. We need to remember that the 109,000 people currently on the list (2,700 of whom are Americans) are not convicted terrorists; in fact, they could be you, me or even a Kennedy.

Inserting an appeals process into the law to protect the rights of anyone banned from purchasing a gun by a No Fly-No Buy is a possible compromise and the least that must be done. The Senate is working on such a compromise in the form of an amendment to a spending bill that would allow anyone on the No Fly List denied a firearm to appeal the decision in court. It would also mandate notification of authorities if an individual who has been on broader terror-watch lists within the past five years attempts to buy a gun. Such a law would have, in theory, tipped off authorities that Omar Mateen, the Orlando shooter who’d been on such a list twice in recent years, had bought a gun, allowing them to keep close tabs on him.

The bipartisan measure is clinging to life.

In the wake of the most recent horrific gun massacre, it’s hard to accept anything less than quick and decisive action in the hopes of avoiding the next one. However, a flawed No Fly-No Buy law would be worse than doing nothing.

...the Constitution is there for a reason, and we must find a way to protect ourselves as well as it.

Putting on my arch-liberal hat for a moment, I do stand with the sitters on other matters. Universal background checks just make sense. Also, allowing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to begin studying the underlying causes of gun violence should be a no-brainer. Right now, as ludicrous as it sounds, federal funding to the CDC for gun-violence research has been restricted since 1996. The legislation was renewed, as is, a year ago, not long after the funerals for those killed in a Charleston, South Carolina, church. This, I believe, tells you all you need to know about Congress, the National Rifle Association and runaway cynicism.

But back to the sit-in. I understand the frustration of Democrats who want common sense to be the rule, not the exception, when it comes to guns. I, too, get angry when I see the National Rifle Association go silent in the wake of massacres like the one in Orlando – that is, except for a day-after blog post reminding members to buy NRA goodies for Dad.

But, in times of crisis, it’s more important than ever to remember that the Constitution is there for a reason, and we must find a way to protect ourselves as well as it.

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John J. Winters Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
John J. Winters teaches at universities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and is the author of "Sam Shepard: A Life."

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