“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.


The Facts

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.

In the context of Columbine, LaPierre testified before a panel of the House Judiciary Committee, and trod a very careful line between “what’s reasonable and what’s not.” So, LaPierre said he was in favor of “instant checks at gun shows just like at gun stores and pawn shops.” But then he described as “unreasonable” nine aspects of the key legislation being pushed by Democrats at the time, led by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).

Essentially, he opposed the entire Lautenberg bill as “made-for-TV lawmaking”—and the NRA lobbied hard against it. But it also ran an ad campaign in newspapers titled “Be Reasonable” that reprinted LaPierre’s testimony.  If you read his testimony, you will see that the crux of it is that existing laws must be better enforced — exactly the same position the NRA takes today.

Also, note that LaPierre uses the modifier “instant” before the word “checks.” That subtle word choice became important later in the debate.

In the legislative process, Lautenberg’s proposal to expand background checks was increasingly weakened (the Internet was excluded, for instance) but when it came for a vote, it passed by 51-50, with Vice President Al Gore casting the deciding vote.  The victory actually came about because one senator, Democrat Max Cleland of Georgia, changed his vote at the last minute after another school shooting the day of the vote in his home state.  

That legislation did not have to meet the 60-vote hurdle that this week’s gun amendment needed to achieve, so in some ways it was a less impressive victory. Still, at the time, it was viewed as a seminal moment. “This is a turning point for our country,” Gore declared.

But the NRA was just biding its time. The 51-50 vote on May 20,1999, turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory for gun-control advocates, similar to the successful vote earlier this month to proceed to debate on the gun amendments.  

When the House of Representatives took up the issue the following month, the NRA worked with a longtime supporter, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), to craft a background-check amendment that the Clinton administration and gun-control groups denounced was a sham that would have actually weakened existing gun laws. His proposal extended background checks to all sales at gun shows but also drastically curtailed the time allowed for the checks — a wrinkle flagged by LaPierre’s use of the word “instant” in his testimony.

In response, Democrats voted against the amendment, thus killing it and eliminating any language on background checks in the underlying bill.

That’s exactly what the NRA wanted. As The Washington Post headlined its article on the legislative maneuvering: “NRA Achieves Its Goal: Nothing.”  The article said:

Nothing is exactly what the House produced with yesterday's vote to reject new gun show background checks, handing the NRA its most dramatic legislative victory in years…. The outcome on the House floor yesterday was the culmination of an NRA lobbying campaign that spent $1.5 million in May and June, including $750,000 for mailings to members nationwide, $300,000 for phone bank operations and an extensive media buy of ads on conservative radio talk shows.

Letters warning of dire consequences and urging quick action poured out of [chief lobbyist James Jay] Baker's office to NRA members. The organization broadcast commercials in selected congressional districts against gun control. As the showdown approached, numerous NRA lobbyists were available on Capitol Hill to press the association's point of view on wavering House members.


The result was legislative stalemate. The House bill lacked any language on background checks, even though lawmakers later passed nonbinding instructions urging that something on expanded background checks be included in a final bill. A Senate-House conference committee, intended to forge a compromise, met only once — and no bill ever emerged. “Even its fiercest foes acknowledge that the National Rifle Association won the biggest political victory of the year, steamrolling gun-control advocates with a powerful mix of political acumen and cold cash,” Scripps Howard reported at year’s end.

So, in effect, the NRA’s support for so-called expanded background checks appears to have been a tactical retreat in the aftermath of Columbine. The actual NRA proposal, once it emerged in the form of Dingell’s amendment, was the opposite of what gun-control advocates considered an expansion of background checks.

Still, LaPierre was on record of having called for some version of expanded background checks in 1999. His caveats have been largely forgotten. So his 1999 testimony led to this uncomfortable moment before the Senate Judiciary Committee this January.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-Vt.): Now, in your testimony in '99, you supported mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show….Should we have mandatory background checks at gun shows for sales of weapons?

LAPIERRE: If you're a dealer, that's already the law. If you're talking --

LEAHY: That's not my question. Please, Mr. LaPierre, I'm not trying to play games here. But if you could, it would here if you could just answer my question.

LAPIERRE: Senator, I do not believe the way the law is working now, unfortunately, that it does any good to extend the law to private sales between hobbyists and collectors.

LEAHY: OK, so you do not support mandatory background checks in all instances at gun shows.

LAPIERRE: We do not because the fact is the law right now is a failure the way it's working. The fact is that you have 76,000-some people that have been denied under the present law. Only 44 were prosecuted. You're letting them go. They're walking the streets.


Sandy Froman, an NRA board member and former president, made a similar point on CNN: “The NRA has changed its position and the reason it’s changed its position is because the system doesn’t work.”

Yet LaPierre, in his 1999 testimony, also suggested the system did not work, complaining about “felons who’ve walked away from gun stores — instead of being prosecuted for a federal felony for trying to buy a gun.” But at the time he chose instead to indicate flexibility on the issue of background checks.


The Pinocchio Test

On a very technical level, Obama’s statement is correct: LaPierre did call for some form of expanded background checks.

Yet at the same time the NRA worked hard to defeat the proposals advanced by President Clinton and other Democrats, just as it has worked hard to defeat Obama’s proposals this year. The net result is the same: stalemate and victory for the NRA.

For reasons of tactics, it serves Obama’s interests to suggest that the NRA once was open to an idea it now opposes. But the political reality is quite different. One suspects that if Obama had been in Clinton’s shoes in 1999, he also would not have considered LaPierre’s statement to be indicative of “support” for expanded background checks.

Obama’s comments don’t really merit a Pinocchio, given the NRA’s statements that its position has changed, but neither does it qualify for a Geppetto. This history lesson shows that, in politics, the words are sometimes much less important than the actions taken for or against legislation.

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