In the wake of the worst mass shooting in United States history, a massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando early Sunday morning that left 49 dead and another 53 wounded, a national debate on gun control reignited yet again (and, yet again, will likely yield few results).
When news broke that the gunman had twice been investigated by the FBI for possible terrorist ties, journalists including Igor Volsky of the liberal advocacy website ThinkProgress were quick to point out that Senate Republicans, their pockets stuffed with cash from the National Rifle Association, blocked an effort last December to prevent people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns. Those Republicans included Iowa Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst.
But the senators’ reasoning behind voting against the measure, an amendment by California Democrat Dianne Feinstein to an Obamacare repeal bill that was destined for a presidential veto regardless, was a little more nuanced than simple Second Amendment subservience to the NRA. Republicans, including Grassley and Ernst, aware of the flaws of government watch lists, were primarily concerned that an outright gun purchase ban would deprive people who were erroneously added to the terrorist watch list of their due process rights — a concern they share some common ground on with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Grassley spokeswoman Beth Levine directed the Informer to a Dec. 9 Judiciary Committee hearing on FBI oversight convened by Grassley, the committee’s chairman, at which he “reiterated that the FBI is notified when someone on the no-fly list attempts to purchase a gun, and can take steps to ensure that a gun doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.” Levine also pointed to a Los Angeles Times editorial arguing that people on the no-fly list should be allowed to buy guns. “Ending gun violence is critically important, but so is protecting basic civil liberties,” the editorial said.
Ernst spokeswoman Brook Hougesen added, “Due process is particularly important in this case due to widely reported flaws with the numerous terrorist watch lists kept by the U.S. government that may wrongfully implicate innocent American citizens.”
As journalist Ryan Cooper wrote at The Week: “There is basically no standard of evidence for being placed on a watch list. It’s hard to even determine if you’re on one or not. And it’s nearly impossible to challenge one’s status. These watch lists have caught up innocent university professors, young children, members of Congress, and many others.”
In an email, Hougesen cited a 2007 Justice Department report (PDF) finding that 38 percent of watch list records tested “continued to contain errors or inconsistencies that were not identified through the [Terrorist Screening Center’s] quality assurance efforts.” She also referenced a Washington Post article discussing the “risk of over-inclusion” — a slight misspelling adding someone with a name similar to a suspect’s to the list, for example, or variant translations of Arabic names leading to the same outcome.
In December, Grassley and Ernst both voted for an alternative amendment, introduced by Texas Republican John Cornyn, to allow the attorney general to step in and delay the purchase of a gun by an individual on the watch list for 72 hours, during which time the AG could seek court approval to block the purchase for good if the would-be buyer was deemed a threat. That satisfied GOP due process concerns, but Democrats, who didn’t think the measure had enough teeth, voted it down.
However, it’s important to note that neither Feinstein’s nor Cornyn’s proposals would likely have prevented the Orlando shooter from purchasing his weapons. He was on a watch list while the FBI investigated him but taken off afterward. The proposals also wouldn’t have stopped the married couple who shot up a San Bernardino nonprofit disability services center late last year, which prompted the votes on the gun amendments in December. The two weren’t on any watch lists.
As far as NRA campaign contributions go, Ernst received $9,900 from the gun lobby group during the 2014 election cycle, according to FEC records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Grassley hasn’t taken any money from the group since the 2010 cycle, when he got $6,950. (The NRA’s position on watch list bans is similar to those of Grassley and Ernst.)
Hougesen didn’t address the Informer’s question about the influence Ernst’s contribution may have on her positions on gun reform but Levine did by invoking the senior senator’s classic refrain: “Sen. Grassley takes contributions to his political campaign that are legal and have no strings attached. Period.”