“In fact, even the NRA used to support expanded background checks. The current leader of the NRA used to support these background checks.”
— President Obama, remarks on Senate vote on gun bill, April 17, 2013
Some readers were curious to learn more about the National Rifle Association’s purported support for background checks. As it happens, there is a bit of fact checker dispute about this history.
PolitiFact in March rated as “true” this statement by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg: “In fact, if you go back to 1999, [NRA chief executive] Wayne LaPierre testified on behalf of the NRA that background checks were appropriate and should be done.”
But last week FactCheck.org dinged Vice President Biden for making a claim similar to the president. FactCheck.org, which issues no ratings, said Biden described the NRA’s policies through “rose-colored glasses,” because the organization only supported language denounced as a sham by then-President Bill Clinton.
When fact checkers disagree, it’s often because the statements being vetted are slightly different. Bloomberg, for instance, carefully did not use the word “support” and he did not refer to the “good old days” of working with the NRA, as Biden did. (PolitiFact, however, on Thursday reiterated its “true’ ruling for Obama’s statement above.)
The Fact Checker has learned from decades of covering politics and diplomacy that looking at the words sometimes is not enough; actions are also important. Is this a case where “support” for a particular action may have only been tactical, designed to block or kill proposals that pose a danger to an organization?
As former House speaker Newt Gingrich memorably explained during the GOP presidential debates in 2011, the individual mandate that formed the core of President Obama’s health care law was originally designed to block health reform efforts by Hillary Clinton: “In 1993, in fighting HillaryCare, virtually every conservative saw the mandate as a less-dangerous future than what Hillary was trying to do….It’s now clear that the mandate, I think, is clearly unconstitutional. But, it started as a conservative effort to stop HillaryCare in the 1990s.”
In other words, it was tactical maneuver — subject to change later.
The history of the NRA’s “support” for expanded background checks is worth recounting, in part because it has striking resemblances to the current gun-control battle.
As with this year, the gun-control battle of 1999 was sparked by a horrific school shooting: the April 20, 1999, Columbine High School massacre in which two students killed 12 students and a teacher before committing suicide. President Clinton, similar to President Obama, pushed for immediate action on gun-control legislation.
“President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg are pushing gun control. America’s police say they are wrong. Seventy-one percent of police say that Obama’s gun ban will have zero effect on violent crime. Eighty percent of police say that more background checks will have no effect. Ninety-one percent say the right answer is swift prosecution and mandatory sentencing. Tell your senator to listen to police, instead of listening to Obama and Bloomberg.”
— voiceover of a new ad by the National Rifle Association, citing a new “national survey” by PoliceOne.com
The NRA’s new ad caught our attention, given that it was featured prominently on the Washington Post Web site Wednesday.
But there are polls — and there are polls.
Regular readers know that we have urged caution against relying on opt-in Internet surveys that appear to make broad claims about estimating population values. Indeed, the American Association for Public Opinion Research's 2010 task force, in its top recommendation, warned researchers to avoid “nonprobability online panels” when trying to accurately estimate population values.
For that reason, we gave Two Pinocchios to President Obama in 2012 for claiming that a majority of millionaires support the Buffett rule. He was relying on an opt-in Internet poll.
Let’s find out more about this survey, and whether it justifies the language used by the NRA.
PoliceOne.com is a Web site that caters to law enforcement and is part of San Francisco-based Praetorian Group, a family of Web sites for first responders. The headline on the news release announcing the poll last week said: “PoliceOne.com Releases Survey of 15,000 Law Enforcement Professionals about U.S. Gun Control Policies.” PoliceOne’s Web site describes the survey-takers as “more than 15,000 verified law enforcement professionals.”
“We had an interesting discussion about why fewer students are coming to, particularly from Japan, to study in the United States. And one of the responses I got from our officials, from conversations with parents here, is that they’re actually scared. They think they’re not safe in the United States and so they don’t come.”
— Secretary of State John F. Kerry, interview with CNN, April 15, 2013
In the interview, Kerry specifically cited Japan, noting that it has highly restrictive gun laws and thus relatively few deaths from gun violence. “They think they’re not safe in the United States and so they don’t come,” he said, before noting that he was “out of politics” and so no longer involved in the debate.
Yes, but he is Secretary of State now, so his words resonate around the world. What do the facts show?
The Institute of International Education, which promotes international education, tracks both the number of students who study in the United States and where U.S. students study abroad. Its annual report also provides country by country assessments of the changes in numbers.
“It takes the average American taxpayer 13 hours to comply with the tax code, gathering receipts, reading the rules and filling out the forms the IRS requires. . . . The tax code forces Americans to spend over $168 billion to comply and 6 billion hours.”
— Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), hearing of the House Ways & Means Committee, April 11, 2013
Federal taxes are due on Monday, so it seems appropriate to check some of the rhetoric concerning the burden of complying with the nation’s complex tax code. Politicians love to complain about the size and scope of the tax code — though much of the complexity stems from laws passed by Congress.
Camp is chairman of the tax-writing committee in the House of Representatives, and his remarks at a hearing on the president’s budget caught our attention. The Fact Checker has always done his own taxes, but sophisticated tax software in recent years has certainly eased the burden of endless calculations.
How accurate are Camp’s figures and where do they come from?
Camp’s first statement — about compliance taking 13 hours — was carefully phrased, adding in not only filling out the forms but also gathering receipts and reading the rules. He does not cite a source, but it turns out this estimate comes from the Internal Revenue Service itself.
“We should be focusing on violent criminals and that has not been the Obama Justice Department's priority. In 2010, there were over 15,000 felons and fugitives who tried to illegally purchase firearms. Of those 15,000, the Obama Justice Department prosecuted just 44. Let me repeat those numbers because those numbers are staggering, 15,000, they only prosecuted 44.”
— Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), on the Sean Hannity Show, April 10, 2013
We’ve written before about the disconnect between the number of people denied guns via a background check and the number of people prosecuted. Essentially, bringing a criminal case for lying on a government form is a relatively low priority for prosecutors. But we have also shown that the federal numbers do not tell the complete picture, because there is strong evidence that state officials use background checks to pick up and charge fugitives and other at-large criminals.
Cruz, in a talking point he also repeated on the Lou Dobbs show, placed the blame for this problem on the Obama administration. He got one set of numbers wrong — in 2010 the number of felons and fugitive denied a firearm was actually 48,000, not 15,000 — but the number of prosecutions he cited (44) was on the nose. That’s out of nearly 73,000 total denials, for a variety of reasons, by the FBI.
Still, we were intrigued by his partisan framing of the problem. So we dug into the numbers again to see if there was much difference between Obama and the administration of George W. Bush in prosecuting such cases.
Ever since the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) was established, government reports — such as by the General Accounting Office in 2003 and the Justice Department Inspector General in 2004 — have documented how few people are prosecuted. In 2002 and 2003, for instance, the IG found that only 154 people (much less than one percent) out of 120,000 denials were prosecuted — about an average of 78 prosecutions a year.
"It's a mischaracterization of my position. I've never been against the Civil Rights Act, ever, and I continue to be for the Civil Rights Act as well as the Voting Rights Act. There was a long, one interview that had a long, extended conversation about the ramifications beyond race, and I have been concerned about the ramifications of certain portions of the Civil Rights Act beyond race, as they are now being applied to smoking, menus, listing calories and things on menus, and guns. And so I do question some of the ramifications and the extensions but I never questioned the Civil Rights Act and never came out in opposition to the Civil Rights Act or ever introduced anything to alter the Civil Rights Act."
— Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), during a speech at Howard University, April 10, 2013
There’s an old rule in politics: If it’s too complicated to explain, you are probably in trouble.
Paul, a potential GOP candidate for the 2016 presidential election, gave an interesting speech on Wednesday to historically black Howard University, but his remarks were overshadowed by his attempt to explain the controversy over his 2010 comments on the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“I have never wavered in my support for civil rights and the Civil Rights Act,” he said in his speech. “The dispute, if there is one, has always been about how much of the remedy should come under federal or state or private purview.”
But then Paul expanded on his remarks in the question-and-answer period, saying in response to a tough question that he had been concerned really only about the “ramifications and extensions” of the Civil Rights Act. We sought an explanation from Paul’s staff but did not get a response. So let’s go to the video tape!
The Civil Rights Act was pushed by President Lyndon Johnson but likely would not have become law without the shrewd legislative gamesmanship of then-Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois. Dirksen figured out a way to bring along wavering Republicans, in order to break a lengthy filibuster led by Southern Democrats, by carefully tweaking a House bill to reduce federal intervention in local matters — but not enough to force a rewriting of the whole bill in the House.
“Where was Hillary Clinton in all of this? I mean the fact that she was unaware that her own ambassador was saying that the consulate couldn’t withstand a coordinated attack, that was never answered to a satisfactory answer.”
— Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), on “Fox and Friends,” April 9, 2013
The controversy continues over the deaths last year of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in an attack on a U.S. facility (a “special mission,” not technically a consulate) in Benghazi, Libya. Certainly there are outstanding questions, and Ayotte is among the lawmakers pushing for the establishment of a special investigative committee.
We take no position on that idea, but we were curious about her statement concerning former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, who by all accounts would be considered the top Democrat in the 2016 presidential race if she decided to run.
What is Ayotte talking about? Essentially, it’s a question of bureaucratic response — and inertia.
There are two key elements here — what the ambassador supposedly said and what Clinton actually knew. In the case of Stevens, this is not something he really said but what is contained in a never-released classified cable. At this time, it is unclear if he actually wrote the cable.
Note: From time to time, The Fact Checker writes an analytical look at politics or diplomacy, rather than a traditional “fact check,” based on his experience in covering Washington and diplomacy. This is one of those columns.
“China’s leaders issued thinly veiled rebukes to North Korea for raising regional tensions, with the president saying no country should throw the world into chaos and the foreign minister warning that Beijing would not allow mischief on its doorstep.”
— Reuters , April 8, 2013
“The Obama administration, detecting what it sees as a shift in decades of Chinese support for North Korea, is pressuring China’s new president, Xi Jinping, to crack down on the regime in Pyongyang or face a heightened American military presence in its region.”
— The New York Times , April 6, 2013
The Holy Grail in North Korea diplomacy is getting China to put pressure on its long-time protege.
Perhaps the stars have finally aligned with a new Chinese president and young and untested North Korean leader. But recent history suggests that, once again, any Chinese movement will be frustratingly too incremental for U.S. officials — even though, in theory, China should have important leverage as North Korea’s biggest trading partner.
An interesting analysis by the Congressional Research Service shows that trade between China and North Korea almost doubled in the years immediately after its first nuclear test in 2006.
The Fact Checker closely covered diplomacy with North Korea during the Bush administration and the early days of the Obama administration. U.S. officials often expressed the hope that, this time, China would begin to take action against North Korea. But after a brief glimmer of success, the Chinese reverted to a favorite script — urging the United States to show “more flexibility” in negotiations.
“There is also discussion of a new, national gun registry connected with universal background checks. The Obama Administration’s Justice Department has said that the effectiveness of universal background checks ‘depends on…requiring gun registration,’ something I strongly oppose.”
--Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), “Our Right to Bear Arms ,” The Daily Caller, April 5, 2013
A reader asked us about this paragraph in an opinion article written by Portman, given that the Obama administration has insisted it has no interest in creating a national gun registry. We also have previously noted that federal law prohibits creating such a registry -- a law Portman surely knows about because he signed a letter in support of the provision when it was under discussion in 2011.
So what’s going on here?
This is an interesting example of how someone can create a certain impression by carefully arranging two independently correct sentences. The first sentence refers to a “discussion” of a national gun registry, which is different than any legislation being introduced. But then the next sentence refers to a statement by the Obama Justice Department, which certainly suggests Obama is interested in the idea.
Since the Newtown shooting four months ago, the Fact Checker has devoted 14 columns to examining various statistics about guns and gun violence, as well as claims made in pro-gun and anti-gun advertisements.
Yet some of these disputed facts keep turning up in the political discourse, and in news reports, even if many of the claims made by both sides simply do not hold up to scrutiny.
Most recently, President Obama last week repeated the claim that 40 percent of gun sales lack a background check, even though the Fact Checker, PolitiFact and the Associated Press had pointed out the figure was unreliable. (The president did not, however, repeat the statistic in his most recent speech on gun violence this week.)
Here, as a reader service, is a summary of our ratings on gun statistics, with links to the original columns in the headlines. We will continue to examine gun claims made on both sides, and welcome suggestions from readers.