“In the race to replace Jessie Jackson, watch out for Debbie Halvorson. When she was in Congress before, Halvorson got an A from the NRA. The NRA: against comprehensive background checks, against banning deadly assault weapons, against banning high-capacity ammunition clips. Halvorson even co-sponsored a bill that would allow some criminals to carry loaded, hidden guns across state lines. Debbie Halvorson: when it comes to preventing gun violence, she gets an F.”

— voiceover of a television ad by the Independence USA PAC

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has weighed in dramatically in the House special election to replace former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., with his political action committee, Independence USA, spending more than $2 million on the race. Many of his ads target former Rep. Debbie Halvorson, who had taken pro-gun stands as a Democrat from a largely rural district but is now trying to make a comeback in a more urban area of the state.

 These ads are hard-hitting and negative, with similar themes. The messages has been further reinforced through attack mailings. Let’s check their accuracy. (All are variations on the theme expressed in the text above.)

The Facts

As is typical with negative ads, there is a big difference between the literal text of the ad and the images and messages that it sends. For instance, the ad notes that as a member of Congress, Halvorson received an A rating from the NRA. Then the ad describes some of the NRA’s positions on proposed gun laws, while displaying a photograph of Halvorson.

The implication, particularly to a casual viewer watching the ad, is that these NRA positions are also Halvorson’s current positions. But her stand on guns has evolved, particularly on background checks.

Halvorson’s campaign Web site says she backs: “Stiff penalties for straw buyers; universal background checks and registration of all firearms; making sure that background checks work so people do not fall through the cracks in the national database; ending the gun show loophole.”

 On the campaign trail, Halvorson has made the same points, while maintaining her skepticism of an assault weapons ban and on restricting the size of ammunition magazines. The NRA has not made an endorsement in this race and certainly Halvorson’s current stand on universal background checks would not please the organization. (We did not get a response from an NRA spokesman.) On its Web site, the lobbying arm of the NRA highlights an article that says universal background checks “turn traditional innocent conduct into a criminal offense.”

Stefan Friedman, a spokesman for the Independence USA, said that “the ad is crystal clear that it is the NRA that opposes background checks.”

Friedman noted that Halvorson, as a state lawmaker, cast no vote when the Illinois Senate passed a law to make buyers at gun shows undergo background checks and was never a co-sponsor of a similar bill in the House. “Considering the NRA tends to not hand out A+ ratings to candidates who support background checks and closing gun loopholes, perhaps she should come clean if she’s always supported background checks and closing gun loopholes, or if this is just an election-year conversion,” he said.

Regarding the bill that Halvorson co-sponsored, the ad is referring to HR 179, the National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act, which would make state permits to carry a concealed firearm valid in other states that permit concealed weapons. The bill went nowhere during her term in office, but it passed the House (with the support of 43 Democrats) in slightly modified form in 2011, though it was never taken up by the Senate.

The ad’s reference to “some criminals” carrying concealed guns across state lines refers to the fact that different states have different rules for obtaining a permit. Thus a state such as Ohio, which prohibits concealed weapons permits to people with certain misdemeanor convictions (such as two assaults within five years), would have to allow someone from a state with lesser standards to carry a weapon if they arrived in Ohio with a valid permit.

 But here’s the rub: The only state that prohibits any concealed weapons is Illinois, though the law was recently struck down, leaving its future in limbo. If Illinois did approve a law allowing concealed weapons, at this point it is unclear that it would adopt rules as restrictive as, say, Ohio.

In fact, the initial news release on this ad incorrectly said that this bill “would allow criminals to carry loaded, hidden guns in Chicago.” That’s wrong, but Friedman says it was an error in the release and never ran in an ad.

The Pinocchio Test

These ads cut very close to the line. The description of the NRA positions are correct, but the photograph of Halvorson suggests guilt by association — even though she has since distanced herself from the NRA and taken a more nuanced approach toward potential gun restrictions in her current race.

Moreover, the ad conjures up the image of criminals entering the state with hidden guns, even though the bill she co-sponsored has never become law and its possible impact on Illinois residents is unclear.


Two Pinocchios


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