Port Workers vs. Gun Owners: A Double Standard?

The National Rifle Association’s refusal to support background checks is befuddling given that more than 2 million transportation workers already are required to get them for employment. This mandate was required by three laws signed by President George W. Bush and supported by a majority of Republicans in the House and Senate.

In 2002, Congress mandated background checks for all transportation workers. The September 11 attacks demonstrated terrorists’ ability to use the U.S. transportation system to attack our way of life. Congress attempted to prevent future transportation-related attacks by requiring that all transportation workers attain biometric cards before accessing U.S. ports. The only way to receive these credentials is to undergo a background check, and more than 2 million have applied for this credential.

Congress mandated additional requirements in 2006 and 2007. Jim DeMint, the Republican senator from South Carolina at the time, was one of the strongest proponents of stringent background checks. He wanted to make sure individuals who had committed serious criminal acts were prohibited from working at U.S. ports. He believed individuals with criminal backgrounds were susceptible to committing additional bad acts.

His conviction was so strong, in fact, that he insisted comprehensive background check language be included in the Implementing the Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007. “Americans expect us to check and verify the nature of the people who work at our seaports,” DeMint told his colleagues on the Senate floor.

The background checks Congress and President Bush mandated placed a significant hardship on our nation's transportation workers. Unlike gun owners, transportation workers are required to pay the government $129.75 for a background check and biometric identification. Similarly, transportation workers, unlike gun owners, are required to wait several months for the government to process their background check paperwork. The rules are strict — you must have a background check and a TWIC card if you want to be employed within a U.S. port.

The government maintains a database of all transportation workers who have undergone a background check to receive a biometric credential. The database is updated continuously, and the administration shares information in the database with port operators and state and local law enforcement officials. If a port operator wants to know if the transportation worker’s biometric credential is valid, it will contact the Transportation Security Administration. Similarly, if a law enforcement official has a question about the biometric credential, he also calls the TSA.

The stated rationale for maintaining the database and the significant expense of updating it is that truck drivers, crane operators and merchant mariners could hurt the country if not monitored.

Meanwhile, Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican who supported the 2007 act imposing stricter standards on transportation workers, now opposes databases and other safety standards for gun owners because “that’s the way reductions in liberty occur." According to the Huffington Post, Hatch told reporters this month that "when you start saying people all have to sign up for something, and they have a database where they know exactly who's who, and where government can persecute people because of the database, that alarms a lot of people in our country, and it flies in the face of liberty."

If hardworking transportation workers can, at their own expense, be required to submit to background checks and have their movements monitored, it’s hard to see how gun owners cannot be held to the same standard.

K. Denise Rucker Krepp is a former chief counsel at the U.S. Maritime Administration and a former senior counsel on the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee. Contact her at kdrkrepp@hotmail.com

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