On Wednesday night, Democrats ditched their signature cringing timidity and mounted an actual protest on the floor of the House of Representatives, demanding a vote on several gun control bills. The rules of the House are much more favorable to the majority party, so having no filibuster or similar mechanism as the Senate does, House Democrats staged a sit-in. They occupied the floor of the chamber, refusing to leave and delivering impassioned addresses about the horror of gun violence.
It was marvelous political theater, particularly the part where they heckled and sang over Speaker Paul Ryan as he tried to blitz a rule that would make it harder for financial advisers to swindle their clients. But the actual substance of the key Democratic proposal — namely, enabling the government to deny gun purchases for people on various secret terrorism watch lists — is extremely bad. It's a case study in strategic political failure from the Democratic leadership.
Now, there were two other bills the Democrats were pushing. One was an absolutely vital expansion of government funding for gun research; the other an expansion of background checks. But inexplicably, the Democrats dropped the research bill partway through their sit-in, and with the background check bill being a bit dull, that left the watch list approach (sloganized as "No Fly, No Buy") as the major rallying point of the protest. The problem with the watch list approach is well captured by Alex Pareene:
The no-fly list is a civil rights disaster by every conceivable standard. It is secret, it disproportionately affects Arab-Americans, it is error-prone, there is no due process or effective recourse for people placed on the list, and it constantly and relentlessly expands. As of 2014, the government had a master watchlist of 680,000 people, 40 percent of whom had "no recognized terrorist group affiliation." This is both an absurdly large number of people to arbitrarily target in gun control legislation, and far, far too few to have any meaningful effect on actual gun ownership, let alone gun violence. [Gawker]
A snarling fight immediately broke out on the left, with centrist liberals and loyal Democratic partisans on one side, and civil liberties-focused groups and leftists on the other. The ACLU came out against the bill, and so did the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation's biggest Muslim advocacy group, while practically every big-shot Democrat went the other way.
Yet again, Democrats split their own base with conservative policy, and for what? Apparently so they can accuse Republicans of being weak on terrorism during the upcoming election — or even supporting the sale of weapons to ISIS.
This is grotesque political malpractice. Aside from the straight-up violation of due process that is inherent in the very idea of a secret list which can strip away people's constitutional rights, this further entrenches the political legitimacy of Bush-era authoritarian terror politics. We will unquestionably hear about this the next time there is a terrorist attack done by a Muslim and conservatives start shrieking for more dragnet surveillance and torture and secret prisons.
And make no mistake, the no-fly list is almost exclusively directed at Muslims. In American politics, terrorism can only be done by Muslims, by definition. Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump is running on a campaign of overt anti-Muslim bigotry, including but not limited to a literal ban on Muslim immigration. It is morally hideous for Democrats to use a structurally bigoted instrument aimed directly at America's most besieged minority for symbolic grandstanding.
Furthermore, as Dylan Matthews points out, even on the most generous of estimates "No Fly, No Buy" will accomplish approximately nothing on gun violence writ large. At best, it will stop a few hundred gun purchases per year — in a country with something like 360 million guns.
I am sharply reminded of the war on crime, when the howling emergency of a deluge of murder, assault, and robbery overwhelmed people's reason and caution. The political lizard brain took over, and both parties competed to pass punitive measures that satisfied the thirst for vigorous action, potential side effects be hanged.
The result was the greatest system of mass incarceration seen outside the Soviet gulags. It locked up an incomprehensible fraction of the American poor, especially African-Americans. All the while, a probable real driver of the crime wave was bracketed as a minor environmental and public health concern.
"No Fly, No Buy" would not be as devastating as the 1994 crime bill, of course. But it does not bode well. American law enforcement, vast and unwieldy at the best of times, must be wielded with precision to avoid terrible side effects.
Symbolism is important, and it is nice to see Democrats finally growing a spine on gun issues (or anything at all for that matter). But when political leaders are attaching that symbolism to substantive policy and ideological narratives, it is vitally important for them to choose those policies and narratives wisely. A proposal that was actually defensible — an assault weapons ban, say, or a massive gun buyback program — would be superior both morally and on political strategy. Instead instinctive partisanship has Democrats, once again, inventing excuses for abysmal policy.