On Thursday morning, Democratic members of the House of Representatives ended their sit-in protest on the floor of the House. The sit-in, which lasted more than 24 hours, was protesting the fact that the Republican-controlled House refused to put two gun control bills to vote before Congress went on 4th of July vacation.
One of the proposed bills called for universal background checks. The other, which was promoted much more and was the focus of the #NoFlyNoBuy hashtag, proposed that anyone on the no-fly list be banned from buying a gun.
As Gawker's Alex Pareene so aptly put it, the latter is a "bad, stupid bill." It relies on the no-fly list, a notoriously Kafkaesque database of people who have been deemed suspicious. The "no-fly, no buy" bill, which is based on a measure put forth by a bipartisan group of Senators, relies not on the vast federal terrorist screening database, which has more than a million people on it, but the smaller no-fly and "selectee" lists, which include around 109,000 people.
At this point it's almost uncontroversial to say that the no-fly list, which has been around since the Bush administration, is a nightmarish violation of civil liberties. As The Intercept reported in 2014, the system by which people are placed on watchlists is overly broad, riddled with loopholes, and incredibly opaque. As the ACLU has pointed out, authorities have threatened people, often Muslims, with placement on the list if they refuse to become informants.
A baby has been put on the selectee list. Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon the Democrats tapped to lead the sit-in was mistakenly placed on the list in the past and had trouble getting off of it even as a sitting congressman. As far back as 2010 President Obama criticized the watchlisting system, which has been notoriously error-prone since its inception.
As The Guardian reported during the sit-in yesterday, civil rights advocates are aghast that the Democrats are using these watchlists as a gun-control tool.
Despite the known problems with no-fly lists and watchlists more generally, some Democrats and journalists are saying that we don't need to worry about it in this case. Take Amanda Marcotte at Salon who agrees that the no-fly list is a horror, but thinks those focused on it rather than the larger gun control issue are being naive:
Everyone who is following this debate closely should know full well that this bill is fated for the boneyard of failed bills, as the Republicans are far too bought off by the NRA to let it pass. This bill is best understood as a sacrificial lamb, written for the sole purpose of getting Republicans on the record voting it down.
She contends that this will spur momentum for other gun control legislation, and I hope it does. But the political theater you engage in matters. If you know a bill isn't going to pass, put forth a good bill, demonstrate what's being lost, and don't toy with further embedding tools of vast, unchecked surveillance in law as a means to an end.
There's also no reason to believe Democrats don't support the legislation which they're sitting in to support. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who was lauded for visiting her House colleagues during the sit-in, has been outspoken in support of using watchlists as tools for gun control. Speaking in the Senate last week, Warren said "If someone cannot get on an airplane because the FBI is concerned they might be plotting to do harm against Americans, then they shouldn't be able to walk into a store and buy a Rambo-style assault weapon." Too bad the FBI is so often wrong.
This bill creates a situation where Democrats are further attached to gun control which trades on the civil liberties they purport to value, putting constitutional rights on the table as a bargaining chip. A sit-in is a good piece of political theater but what you sit in for matters.
Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at firstname.lastname@example.org