The NRA’s fuzzy, decades-old claim of ‘20,000’ gun laws
By Glenn Kessler,
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
“Senator, there needs to be a change in the culture of prosecution at the entire federal level. It's a national disgrace. The fact is, we could dramatically cut crime in this country with guns and save lives all over this country if we would start enforcing the 9,000 federal laws we have on the books.”
— National Rifle Association Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre, testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jan. 30, 2013
Many readers have asked us about this claim of 9,000 federal gun laws, which was later repeated by Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday when LaPierre appeared on that program. When we checked with NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam for the sourcing, he said that LaPierre had misspoken.
“If anything, he understated the number of laws,” Arulanandam said, noting that the NRA generally refers to “20,000 laws.”
Indeed. A Nexis search found nearly 500 references in media reports, often by NRA officials or their allies, but also by the NRA’s foes. It is repeated in letters to the editors in newspapers big and small. The figure has stretched back almost five decades. Here’s a sampling:
“We have 20,000 gun laws on the books now, but the Attorney General's office has consistently refused to prosecute and consequently imprison convicted felons.They too often go through a revolving door.”
— Charlton Heston, assuming the presidency of the NRA, Sept. 23, 1998
“Criminals violate every one of these 20,000 gun laws on the books.”
— LaPierre, appearing on CBS This Morning, Oct. 1, 1993
“More than 20,000 gun laws are already on the books, and they vary widely. In that sense, a new proliferation of local laws amounts to a powerful argument for national legislation and makes clear its political feasibility.”
— New York Times editorial, July 1, 1982
“Washington, D.C., has probably the strictest gun laws in the United States, and there are some 20,000 gun laws now in the United States. And yet March 30th a year ago, a young man that disabled me — he was in Washington, D.C., in broad daylight, out on the public street, standing, made his way among the press corps as I came out of the building, and all those laws did not keep him from having a gun and not only shooting me but shooting three other people.”
— President Ronald Reagan, question-and-answer session with students at St. Peter's Catholic Elementary School, April 15, 1982
“Consider the fact that we now have on the lawbooks of this nation over 20,000 laws governing the sale, distribution and use of firearms.”
— Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), hearings before the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, 1965
Yep, you read that last one right — 1965. That’s three years before passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968, the sweeping measure that became law after the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.
The Dingell quote is the earliest reference found by Brookings Institution researchers Jon S. Vernick and Lisa M. Hepburn when they first tried to untangle this factoid in 2002. (They have a fuller account, including the complete Dingell quote, in the 2003 book “Evaluating Gun Policy,” edited by Jens Ludwig and Philip J. Cook.) The figure was then repeated in a 1969 study, “Firearms and Violence in American Life,” which cited Dingell but noted he did not provide a source when he testified. Dingell’s staff did not respond to a query on Monday about how Dingell came up with the figure.
Vernick and Hepburn argued that, as a result of NRA efforts, “more than 40 states preempt all or most local gun-control laws, which has likely reduced the overall number of local gun laws.” But the Brookings paper has not been updated in the last 10 years.
Arulanandam referred us to three sources for the 20,000 figure: The 1983 book “Under the Gun,” by James D. Wright, Peter H. Rossi and Kathleen Daly; the Firearms Law Deskbook, by Stephen Halbrook, and a compilation of state firearms laws by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
Wright noted that his book was 30 years old. He said the figure was “at best a reasoned guess, by no means a precise count,” and was based on four sources: ATF's 1978 publication, “Your Guide to Firearms Regulations;” the NRA's 1975 pamphlet, “Firearms and Laws Review;” an unpublished 1980 paper for the Department of Justice by Edward D. Jones and Marla Wilson Ray and two papers by Philip Cook; and his own survey of weapons policies in a sample of U.S. police departments.
Halbrook wrote in his 2009-2010 edition: “A decade ago it was said that there were over 20,000 laws on the books regulating firearms at the federal, state and local levels. The gun control law explosion since then has surely caused that number to double.” But he said he made that reference simply to indicate there are a lot of laws on the books. “The figure is hyperbole,” he said. “There is no way to count them all,” but the number is in “the sphere of ‘countless.’”
Arulanandam cited the ATF guide to state laws because it is 507 pages long and includes only laws relevant to dealers. “There are more than 3,000 counties in the U.S., most of which have nothing listed in the book. So if there are even a few ‘laws’ per page, and if even a sizable fraction of those counties have anything like a discharge law or a licensing requirement for guns stores, they will add up very quickly,” he said.
But these sorts of counting exercises may not be particularly relevant to the current debate. After all, not all laws are created equal.
Vernick said last week that it is very difficult to add up the number of laws. He counted about 300 state laws as 1999, but it was hard to decide what should be considered a law.
“Even if one breaks down the Gun Control Act of 1968 into separate pieces, is the part requiring, for example, gun dealers to be licensed one ‘law’ or does each separate requirement for the licensing process count as a separate law,” Vernick said. “There is no gold standard answer to a question like this. In part, this is because it’s the wrong question. We need to be asking not ‘how many’ laws (however defined) do we have. But do we have the right ones to make it harder for high risk people to gain access to guns.”
Wright agreed. “Not sure that number is relevant to anything,” he said. “In the context of the times, it was a useful counter-point to the common argument that the U.S. is (was) virtually the only advanced society that exercises no controls over civilian gun ownership, acquisition and use. Not true then and not true now. The problem is not the lack of gun control laws but the lack of nationally uniform and effective laws.”
Alan Korwin, who co-wrote “Gun Laws of America” with Michael P. Anthony, has added up 271 federal gun statutes, but says all of these numbers are fairly meaningless. He has written an essay on his Web site addressing the question of how many gun laws exist, and whether this is even the proper metric in the first place.
“If the goal of the laws is to outlaw crime, then there are enough, because all these luridly promoted acts of infamy involve many laws being violently broken.... Ask if there is sufficient ‘crime control,’ and everyone seems to agree there is not,” Korwin wrote.
Anthony, his colleague, says the issue is complicated by the fact that new federal legislation often changes many gun statutes in the United State code — and that many gun laws are not included in the code at all but in so-called statutes at large.
“The Statutes at Large are federal statutes that have been omitted from the U.S. Code and simply piled into an unnumbered and largely non-indexed compilation of federal laws,” he said. “Even most lawyers are unaware of the existence of the statutes at large.” But he felt more comfortable saying there were thousands of gun laws rather than hundreds.
Korwin, who is highly skeptical of the need for new laws, believes the figure is a distraction. “A few small clues here and there … have led me to believe the 20,000 number was invented, or at best wildly guessed, probably by the gun-rights community, as a catch-all sound bite for the debate,” he wrote in his essay.
“The point is that there are — insert number here — laws on the books that address anything illegal that anyone can do with a firearm,” Arulanandam said. “Having that number of laws, plus one, isn’t going to make anyone safer. What will make everyone safer is if we enforce the laws that we have on the books now.”
The Pinocchio Test
By any reasonable measure, this is suspicious figure. Its origin is murky, and it is inconceivable that the same number of gun laws would exist now as some five decades ago.
Moreover, even experts who favor the NRA’s agenda have their doubts about the figure or its relevance. It may well be the case that there are “thousands” of laws, but what does that mean? What does counting statutes, or local regulations, say about the quality or effectiveness of those laws?
We don’t play gotcha here at The Fact Checker, so we accept that LaPierre misspoke when he said 9,000 federal laws rather than 20,000 laws across the nation. But that slip of the tongue actually points out the fuzzy nature of the claim.
This 20,000 figure appears to be an ancient guesstimate that has hardened over the decades into a constantly repeated, never-questioned talking point. It could be lower, or higher, depending on who’s counting what.
UPDATE: Anthony, and a number of other readers, asked why this merited Three Pinocchios. The Pinocchio rating is always the hardest part of the column and certainly is subject to debate.
In this case, the rating is based on the fact that the figure had been used for almost five decades, without much research or diligence to back it up. Both sources cited by the NRA--Wright and Halbrook--said the figure was not particularly credible, with Wright saying it was not relevant and Halbrook labeling it as hyperbole. Korwin outlined a number of issues with the figure in his essay.
Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that the “20,000”--or “9,000”--amounts to false precision. The argument the NRA wants to make is no less credible if the talking point was that there are “many, many laws,” rather than 20,000 or 9,000. We wavered between Two and Three Pinocchios, but the fact that this factoid had been repeated so often and for so long is ultimately what tipped it to three. The rating also goes to anyone--friend or foe of the NRA--who has used this figure in the past.
Check out our candidate Pinocchio Tracker