In a triumph of law enforcement and counterterrorism that narrowly prevented disaster, the events at Times Square last week renewed the national focus on the threat of terrorism. With another danger averted and nearly a decade without a domestic attack, the timing would seem ripe for proponents of America’s forceful antiterrorism policies to be trumpeting their successes. But instead, a funny thing happened in Congress last week: Republicans developed a sudden concern for the rights of suspected terrorists.
The right in question was that of the second amendment, the right to bear arms. When confronted by Senator Frank Lautenberg’s proposed legislation that would prevent those on the terrorist watch list from buying guns and explosives, members of Congress and advocacy groups jumped to the defense of due process and individual freedoms. Our identification of suspected terrorists is not perfect, they reasoned, so their rights should not be infringed.
But this line of reasoning flies in the face of everything these same politicians have spent the last decade fighting for in the name of national security. People deemed “suspected” terrorists have already been wiretapped without a warrant from a real judge, detained indefinitely without trial at Guantanamo Bay, waterboarded and subjected to various other harsh torture techniques and denied Miranda rights. Their fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth amendment rights have been obliterated, but somehow the second amendment has remained sacred. Given the unmistakable danger of legally handing explosives to suspected terrorists, we find this glaring hypocrisy to be unconscionable.
The Editorial Board supports Senator Lautenberg’s measure and hopes that reasonable steps are taken to assure that suspected terrorists cannot legally purchase dangerous weaponry. Laws involving conflict between liberty and safety always involve drawbacks and indeed, we would oppose many measures like the ones listed above. But with the safety benefits of this policy so palpable and the infringement on freedom relatively marginal, this ought to be an easy call.
The speed with which this change can be enacted also holds paramount importance. Already, 1,119 suspected terrorists–including Times Square bomb suspect Faisal Shahzad–have legally purchased guns and up to 50 pounds of military-grade explosives. Every minute Congress waits on this piece of legislation increases the possibility, raised by Senator Joseph Lieberman, of heavy casualties that terrorists “with high-powered automatic weapons could inflict […] in seconds.”
One legitimate worry about this legislation stems from the erratic accountability of a terrorist watch list already responsible for numerous gaffes. But if that were truly the main concern of critics, the argument against banning weapons for those on the much more tightly-controlled “No-Fly List” becomes a lot more difficult. And yet, two of the three Republican candidates in California’s Senate primary argued that even those on the CIA’s exclusive list of about 2,500 people who are literally barred from boarding an aircraft in the United States should be given the freedom to buy an AK-47.
Where do these arguments come from? Once again, the enormous political influence of the NRA has driven politicians to support unbridled–rather than reasonable–access to guns. Opponents of gun control have painted themselves into a caricature by defending the lack of background checks at gun shows, the expiration of Bill Clinton’s assault weapons ban in 2004 and now this latest calamity. Nobody needs an AK-47 to defend himself–especially not a suspected terrorist.