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Congressman Tom Cole

Representing the 4th District of Oklahoma

An Imperfect Tool

December 14, 2015
Weekly Columns

Without question, there are occurrences of violence that have made many Americans feel on edge and question their safety and security. Certainly, the attacks in Paris shocked the world by reminding us of the heinous crimes and violence of which terrorists are capable. And a few weeks later, Americans were rudely awakened by the tragic, ISIL-inspired shooting in San Bernardino, California that claimed 14 innocent lives.  

The growing fear of terrorism has been reinforced by rising reports of mass shootings nationwide. Especially after San Bernardino, it’s clear that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are searching for solutions to keep Americans safe and prevent similar attacks from taking place. 

One suggestion pushed by Democrats is the Denying Firearms and Explosives for Dangerous Terrorists Act, which would deny the sale of firearms to individuals listed on the FBI’s terrorist watch list. While at first description this sounds promising and well intentioned, it’s important to understand what this watch list is and how it’s compiled before heavily relying upon it to protect the lives and liberties of individual Americans. 

The Terrorist Screening Database—or terrorist watch list—is one of the more mysterious lists maintained by the government. Overseen by the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, it is intended to keep record of known terrorists, suspected terrorists or sympathizers and sponsors of terrorist activities. However, the database itself has been questioned for its accuracy and criticized for erroneous inclusion of innocent Americans. In fact, even the left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union has called the watch list a “massive, virtually standardless government watchlisting scheme that ensnares innocent people and encourages racial and religious profiling.”

Some of the common errors in the list have been names of children, misspelled names and similar or identical names. Even lawmakers, including the late Senator Ted Kennedy, have mistakenly been placed on the list—which automatically leads to inclusion on the No Fly List as well. Unfortunately, once individuals are put on the list, there’s no due process or standard procedure for requesting removal, protesting inclusion or receiving explanation for being on the list.  

Considering that there are known inaccuracies, I believe it is dangerous to pass legislation recommending that we follow the list’s guidance alone. While it’s an easy political talking point, the list—as it currently exists—is an imperfect tool capable of inappropriately and unconstitutionally jeopardizing the Second Amendment rights of innocent Americans. And while not widely reported, the list is already a factor taken into consideration by ATF when issuing gun permits. Further, this legislation would not have caught those responsible for the ISIL-applauded attack in San Bernardino because neither of the two terrorists involved were included on the watch list. 

While the current terrorist watch list is defective and often inaccurate, I certainly favor improving the compilation and accuracy of the watch list to identify threatening individuals. But that is what we should be doing first in the form of discussions, hearings and serious legislative proposals. I believe the last thing we should be doing right now is rashly attaching the demonstrably defective terrorist watch list to legislation that impacts law-abiding citizens.