Why the NSA surveillance program matters for the universal background check debate

by Mike Horning, PhD

Last week's anti-gun protest in Columbus seemed to fizzle when BFA supporters turned it into a pro-gun rally, but that doesn't mean the debate on universal background checks is even close to being over.

If the lack of gun control support suggests anything, it is that Ohioans aren't interested much in Mayor Bloomberg's efforts to bring New York-style gun laws to the state of Ohio. But that lack of enthusiasm is also part of a larger national trend of diminished enthusiasm for gun control policy. In fact, polling numbers show that as a priority, reducing gun violence ranks 11 out of 12 in the top priorities for Congress and the President.

While this may seem like good news for gun owners, the reality is that most Americans could be easily persuaded to support universal background checks again. Polls show that at the peak of the gun debates last April, nine out of 10 Americans said they would support stricter background checks on all gun purchases.

The NRA and others have argued that universal background checks, as a policy, will do little to deter gun violence, but could certainly do a lot in terms of efforts to create a universal gun registry. In April, their claims were dismissed by President Obama who said, "The opponents of some of these common sense laws have ginned up fears among responsible gun owners."

Obama argued that constitutional restraints placed on government would stop any efforts to use universal background checks to create a national gun database.

"These officials are elected by you. They are elected by you. I am elected by you. I am constrained as they are constrained by a system that our founders put in place," he said.

That was of course in April, before Edward Snowden spoke to the The Guardian, and gave us a peek into how the NSA circumvents your digital privacy rights whenever it deems necessary.

With help from Google, Verizon, Microsoft and several other companies, the NSA has been collecting data on millions of Americans. One report concluded that the NSA can collect data on nearly anything you do on the Internet. The Washington Post found that the NSA has broken privacy rules thousands of times per year. Another report showed that the NSA has been developing hacks that would circumvent encryption techniques and establish backdoors into your personal data, including your emails, your bank transactions, web searches, and online chats.

Certainly there's a debate to be had about whether such efforts are in the interests of national security. The president has argued that the programs have disrupted plots and increased the chances of preventing catastrophes. No doubt there is some truth here. However, the question that remains is at what cost has this been to personal liberty and to what extent will a government go in its efforts to make America secure. For gun owners, the NSA surveillance raises another question. It pretty much closes the door on the argument that your government isn't going to overstep its bounds with your gun data should it ever get it. Given current NSA practices, it's almost a given that it will.

The question that remains is what would government do with it. Perhaps it would do nothing. Then again, could the government use that registry to target certain individuals as the IRS has admitted doing lately? Perhaps Freedom of Information Requests could be used instead to simply subject gun owners to public shaming and theft. Maybe the data could be used to expose the locations of retired police officers and victims of domestic violence as was the case last year when New York gun owners' permits were published? Regardless of what the government would or would not do, one thing is certain - none of these types of abuses would have ever been possible without the collection of some sort of government data.

While the thought of a universal gun registry causes the mind to run wild with all the possible unintended consequences of such a policy, there is at least one silver lining. The collection of gun data is part of a larger discussion about data collection and privacy rights in general, and the good news is that most Americans are concerned about it, regardless of political ideology. In fact, most of the arguments raised by various news agencies could be raised by gun owners who oppose universal background checks.

ThinkProgress.org, for example, took a brief break from carrying water for leftist agendas to ask questions about who was watching the watchers. They noted that "a basic link in the democratic accountability chain is broken, calling any claim the NSA surveillance regime had on democratic legitimacy into serious question." Slate.com, generally not a website full of gun-friendly vibes, also had some concerns, concluding that "officials tell us there are detailed demands and rules, issued by the court, that limit how the NSA can use the data. But they haven't shown us any documentation of those demands or rules."

This general lack of trust by groups who argue we have a 'benevolent universal-background-checking government' would be amusing if it weren't so hypocritical. On the other hand, these events have brought together some strange bedfellows and that is perhaps a good thing. Last Wednesday the NRA joined a lawsuit with NPR, Fox News, the New Yorker, and the ACLU to oppose the government's surveillance overreach, arguing that such efforts could also be used to identify gun owners.

ACLU lawyer Jameel Jaffer told Reuters that the alliance comes from a common interest in privacy rights.

"The philosophical roots may be different, but I think that is a widely shared American value," Jaffer said.

It is this widely-shared value in privacy rights that should be the starting point for discussions on universal background checks. The recent NSA stories open up new opportunities to have that conversation with those who might be inclined to see nothing wrong with the government collecting data about gun ownership. Those same Americans who don't like the idea of government collecting data about them also seem to be okay with the government collecting data about law abiding gun owners. It's going to be up to gun owners to explain that they are part and parcel of the same concerns about a government overreach and potential abuses. I am sure there will still be those like Michael Bloomberg who will continue to call universal background check policies common sense legislation, but they only need to look to recent activities of the NSA for evidence to see that they are much more than that.

Mike Horning is a professor of Journalism and Public Relations at Bowling Green State University who researches the impact of new media technologies on democratic engagement and public perception. He is also a member of the NRA and the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance.

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