Will states lead the way on a no-fly list gun-sale ban?

Two top New York politicians are asking the Obama administration for copies of the country's no-fly lists, to act at the state level where they say the federal government has failed.

Jason Hunter/The Watertown Daily Times via AP
U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo embrace hands at the Alcoa West Plant in Massena, N.Y., Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York Sen. Charles Schumer, both Democrats, called on the federal government Sunday to either pass a law that prohibits anyone on a terror watchlist from buying a firearm, or releasing the lists to state officials so individual states such as New York can implement their own bans. 

“If the federal government is paralyzed,” said Senator Schumer, “that should not stop New York from doing the right thing.” 

The day after the shooting in San Bernadino that killed 14 people, the worst terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11, the Republican-controlled Senate voted down a gun-control measure proposed by Democrats that would deny people on a federal terrorism watch list the right to buy a gun. The measure failed 45-54. 

In his Oval Office address to the nation last week, President Obama asked Congress to reevaluate their previous vote and make sure no suspected terrorists on a no-fly list are able to buy a gun. “What could possibly be the argument for allowing a terrorist suspect to buy a semi-automatic weapon?” the President asked. “This is a matter of national security.” 

Democratic state legislatures are asking the same question, and want to take the matter into their own hands.

“This loophole does nothing more than help radical people kill innocent Americans, and it must be closed,” said Governor Cuomo. “At least let the states use the information to defend themselves.”

Last week, Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, said his state would also proceed where the federal government has failed, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

“If you cannot fly due to being on a watch list, you shouldn’t be able to purchase a firearm,” Governor Malloy said. “Since Congress so far has failed to act, we will.” Malloy, a Democrat, says he is ready to use executive order to sign a state gun sale ban into law. He is just waiting on terrorist watch lists from the Obama administration. 

"These legislatures say 'No terrorist should be able to buy a gun.' Well, no one is saying that terrorists should be able to buy guns. But just because you are on the watch list, doesn't mean you are a terrorist," Lars Dalseide, media manager at the National Rifle Association, told The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Monday.

If the government actually believed every name on the watch list was a terrorist, "Why are they receiving any other government benefits? Why are they not arrested on the spot?" asks Mr. Dalseide. 

From 2004 to 2014, there were 2,233 instances of people on terrorist watch lists attempting to purchase firearms, the US Government Accountability Office reports. Only 190 of these cases were denied.

These initiatives by Malloy, Cuomo, and Schumer follow a trend of state action on gun control in the absence of federal legislation.

In California, firearm owners have to pass a universal background check, get their handgun microstamped for tracking purposes, and owners can’t buy or sell large-capacity ammunition magazines. And in New Jersey, local police are allowed to use discretion when deciding whether to give residents a "concealed carry" permit. 

State legislatures in both Mississippi and Louisiana have revised their respective gun laws in the opposite direction, suggesting that states on both sides of the issue have used the strengths of federalism to reclaim jurisdiction over gun control laws in the US. 

More surprising, the fight over terrorist watch lists has turned a previous partisan debate on its head.

“What’s striking about this debate is how closely it mirrors the argument during the George W. Bush administration, when Democrats warned against the excesses of the list and Republicans defended it,” The Atlantic’s David Graham argues. 

Whereas Democratic legislators used to view the no-fly lists as an abuse of civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism, Democratic legislators are now saying these same lists are a key tool for national security. And Republican legislators, who once touted Bush’s federal watch lists, say they are irrelevant in the fight against homegrown terrorism.

"The same people that previously called the list a 'joke' are now more than happy to use it if it's going to deny them this [Second Amendment] right," Dalseide told The Monitor. 

"There aren't 700,000 terrorists operating in America openly on watch lists," GOP presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio said on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday. And as Republican presidential candidates have been quick to point out, the two San Bernardino shooters were not on any watch list. 

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