As 2012 drew to a close, the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre put the gun control debate on center stage. Hardly noticed was the five-year extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) signed into law by President Obama. Both stories are about violence in America and each challenges the meaning of an Amendment in our cherished Bill of Rights. But it seems our government is taking extraordinary measures to address the wrong problem.
Every year about nine thousand Americans lose their lives in gun related murders. Most we never hear about. It’s only after mass shootings occur that gun control advocates have their chance to be heard. Usually they’re quickly shouted down by those in Congress beholden to the National Rifle Association lobby and its fear mongering that big brother is out to repeal the Second Amendment.
In comparison, 17 U.S. citizens have been killed on American soil in terrorist like attacks since the national tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001. Of those, 13 were soldiers gunned down by one of their own at Fort Hood, Texas. Last year, 17 other private citizens were killed by terrorists on foreign soil. All but two were in Afghanistan where we’ve been fighting the so-called war on terror for 11 years.
Given these facts, it’s hard to imagine how the President and Congress can spend so much political energy crafting laws and regulations to protect us from terrorism while doing almost nothing to stem the tide of gun violence. But that shouldn’t surprise anyone who thinks our representatives in Washington are out of touch with the problems faced by the average American. It’s similar to the point that Kate Troll made in her recent Empire column about the NRA not truly representing its membership. Congress really doesn’t represent our interests either.
The FISA extension is just one example of how the threat of terrorism is being distorted. If it’s so vital to national security that the government be allowed to monitor international communications without a warrant, then the bill should have been brought to the Senate floor months ago to debate whether or not it undercuts our Fourth Amendment rights. Instead, it was left till the waning days of a lame duck Congress.
Both Alaska Senators voted against extending FISA. In a press release Sen. Lisa Murkowski stated that “the existing law is insufficiently protecting Americans’ communications privacy right now.” But the bill still passed by a three to one margin.
Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) argued that intelligence gathered under FISA contributed to some of the 100 arrests of terror suspects over the past four years. She didn’t say how many, or if any, led to convictions. Nor do we know if any were cases where the FBI allegedly paid informants to pose as a terrorist to recruit the suspects. We’re just being asked to trust a secret program run by a government that we generally don’t trust in the first place.
And when it comes to gun violence, we have little reason to trust Congress. For years they’ve put little or no effort into addressing a problem that’s much more of a real threat to us all than attacks by Islamic terrorists. Their impotence is largely due to the lobbying power of the NRA.
After Sandy Hook there should be no debate about the need to reinstitute the law banning the manufacture and sale of assault weapons for civilian use. Especially if we remember the response to a plot by terrorists to detonate liquid explosives on international flights bound for North America. On the same day that the British government made arrests in that case, our government began prohibiting airline passengers from carrying any liquids past airport security checkpoints. Those restrictions have been relaxed some, but the tragic irony is that we’re acting as if containers holding more than 3.4 ounces of liquids pose a more serious threat to society than the assault weapons which almost anyone in the country can purchase.
A ban on assault weapons won’t end gun violence in America. But it’ll help prevent more tragedies like Sandy Hook, which are the real terrorism threats we face. And the President and Congress need to act now.
• Moniak is a Juneau resident.