Fasano Questions Legality of Governor’s Plan To Deny Gun Sales To Individuals On Federal Terrorism Watch List [Hartford Courant]

December 11, 2015

Article as it appeared in the Hartford Courant

HARTFORD — Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced Thursday that he will sign an executive order blocking anyone on federal government terrorism watch lists from obtaining a gun permit.

Malloy said he is working with the White House to gain access to the databases, which include people who are suspected of having connections to terrorist groups. President Barack Obama has called for banning gun sales to those on the federal “no-fly” list, but a similar measure failed to clear Congress last week.

“If Congress will not act, we in the states will,” Malloy told reporters gathered outside his office. “The [National Rifle Association] and their supporters have stood in the way time and time again as we have fought for sensible gun violence prevention … these are measures that will save lives.”

Malloy cited FBI statistics that found people on government watch lists tried to buy guns 2,233 times between 2004 and 2014; they succeeded in more than 90 percent of cases.

Connecticut, which passed some of the nation’s strictest gun control laws after the 2012 Sandy Hook school shootings, would become the first state to bar those on watch lists from buying guns.

“Like all Americans, I’ve been horrified by the recent terrorist attacks in California and Paris,” the Democratic governor said. “This should be a wake-up call for all of us. This is a moment to seize here in America, and today I’m here to say in Connecticut, we are seizing this moment.”

The state’s all-Democratic congressional delegation applauded Malloy’s move. “His action underscores that Congress has failed to act — completely abdicating responsibility as a public health crisis sweeps the nation, killing 30,000 Americans each year,” Sens. Richard Blumenthaland Chris Murphy said in a joint statement. “If you are too dangerous to fly, you are too dangerous to buy a gun.”

Malloy trumpeted his plan as “basic common sense,” but critics denounced it as a political stunt that does nothing to enhance public safety while encroaching on the constitutional rights of people who have not been convicted of any crime.

“The governor knows full well that law-abiding Americans who pose no threat to national security are mistakenly on the terror watch list,” said Jennifer Baker, the NRA’s director of public affairs. “The NRA’s only objective is to ensure that law-abiding American citizens who were mistakenly put on the list are afforded their constitutional right to due process. Due process is a pillar of the American justice system and cannot be discarded for a talking point that makes people feel safer.”

The no-fly list is one of several government databases of people suspected of terrorist connections. The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the constitutionality of the no-fly list, arguing in federal court that standards for inclusion in the database are vague, shrouded in secrecy and prone to error.

“The ACLU of Connecticut has severe reservations about the reliability and constitutionality of government watch lists like the no-fly list,” said Stephen Glassman, the group’s executive director. “While we acknowledge that the governor’s intentions are admirable, the government’s watch list system is notorious for including innocent people, and the ACLU was in court this week fighting to fix the inadequate process for people wrongly blacklisted on the no-fly list to clear their names.”

Scott Wilson, president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, which opposes stronger gun control, was more blunt.

“Gov. Malloy is planning to take what is in our view unconstitutional executive action that would prohibit firearms purchases and seize firearms of individuals who have not been indicted or convicted for any crime,” Wilson said. “While we are all concerned about terrorism, this approach is very un-American and shameful.”

Malloy’s executive order raises a host of legal questions, said Len Fasano, the Republican leader in the Connecticut Senate. “The top priority is to protect against terrorism, but efforts to protect the country from violence need to be balanced with individual civil liberties,” Fasano said.

Malloy said he is confident safeguards can be put in place to protect those who are erroneously placed on the watch lists.

“Certainly if you have the wrong person or the person simply has the same name [as someone on the list] that’s something that could be resolved, I think, relatively quickly and administratively,” said Malloy, who was joined at the press conference by Dora Schriro, commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection. “If there’s a broader question about why they’re on the list, clearly we’ll have to cover that.”

A “rigorous appeals process” will also help protect the rights of individuals who find themselves on the list in error, he added, without providing details of how that appeals process would work.

There are other practical considerations as well: It is unclear how the state would obtain access to the databases and when the policy would take effect. Malloy said he has a commitment from the Obama administration to support his plan and work through legal channels to bring it to fruition.

“The issue is not fully resolved but let me assure that people are supportive of this concept,” he said.

Malloy’s high-profile announcement generated national headlines and a strong reaction on social media. As the newly elected chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, he has positioned himself as a pugnacious defender of liberal causes. In recent weeks, he made a point of personally welcoming refugees from Syria to Connecticut after some Republican governors declared their states would not host the new arrivals.

“Many Republicans nationally seem to be in favor of allowing those on watch lists to purchase guns, but they are equally willing to deny women, children and families fleeing a war-torn country [to enter] the United States because of a perceived danger,” he said. “Let me say this: The danger of having people on watch lists buy guns in our country is far greater than any of the lists that they’re talking about.”

Several times during his remarks, the governor referred to the Dec. 2 attack in San Bernardino. Even though law enforcement officials say it was committed by a couple not on the government’s watch lists, Malloy said it prompted him to act.
“Until two weeks ago, I was unaware that people were allowed to buy weapons who were on these lists,” Malloy said, “and I was horrified by it.”