(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

“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?

The Facts

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.

Where did this Justice Department comment come from? It was a discussion draft written by an official at the research arm of the Justice Department, who said it was intended to be “a cursory summary of select initiatives to reduce firearm violence and an assessment of the evidence for the initiative.” The National Rifle Association obtained the document and publicized it.

The document is a fairly hard-headed look at various ways to reduce gun violence and whether they could be effective. It was dated Jan. 4, two weeks before Obama unveiled his gun proposals—which did not include national gun registration.

The Associated Press reported that the Justice Department called the document “an unfinished review of gun violence research” and said it does not represent administration policy. Indeed, the document suggests some of the administration’s proposals might not be especially effective.

The quote pulled out for Portman’s opinion article—which we should note includes ellipsis—is from a brief summary: “Effectiveness [of universal background checks] depends on the ability to reduce straw purchasing, requiring gun registration and an easy gun transfer process.”

This is the document’s full section on gun registration:

Universal checks are insufficient for ensuring that firearm owners remain eligible. Convictions, mental health issues, and restraining orders can develop after the background checks.

Recovering guns from those that become ineligible is likely effective. There is evidence from three studies that policies that check domestic violence perpetrators for firearm possession are effective at reducing intimate partner violence. Vigdor and Mercy (2006) found a 7% reduction in intimate partner homicide in states that allowed guns to be confiscated on site of domestic violence incidents. Zeoli and Webster (2010) found that state statutes restricting those under restraining orders from accessing firearms are associated with reductions of 20%-25% in total and firearm intimate partner homicide.

Bridges et al (2008) found that most domestic violence laws do not effect intimate partner homicide except those relating to firearms. All three studies use methods that make alternative explanations unlikely.

The challenge to implementing this more broadly is that most states do not have a registry of firearm ownership. Currently NICS [National Instant Criminal Background Check System] background checks are destroyed within 24 hours. Some states maintain registration of all firearms. Gun registration aims to 1) increase owner responsibility by directly connecting an owner with a gun, 2) improve law enforcement’s ability to retrieve guns from owners prohibited from possessing firearms.

Gun registration also allows for the monitoring of multiple gun purchases in a short period of time.

Portman spokeswoman Caitlin Dunn said Portman was not trying to suggest Obama is advocating a national gun registry:

“There is also discussion” means just that – when media, gun control advocates, local stakeholders, legislators, etc. are talking about options to limit gun violence, a national registry is one of the many things that is being discussed. As you point out in your email, DOJ included this as part of its own discussion draft on various ways to curb gun violence. Portman was speaking literally and was not implying something more - that the Obama Administration is recommending it.

Senator Portman’s point was on the effectiveness of universal background checks, and he was pointing out that, as the Justice Department discussion draft states, the effectiveness of universal background checks “depends on…requiring gun registration,” something he strongly opposes.

The Pinocchio Test

This falls into a bit of grey area. Portman’s language is slippery, allowing him to have his cake and eat it too. Given the juxtaposition of the two sentences, some—if not many—readers might conclude that Obama supports a national gun registry as part of his proposal for universal background checks.

Portman should have made clear that the Obama plan does not include national gun registration and federal law prohibits it—and then he could have quoted from the Justice Department document to say that the president’s own experts believe a plan for universal background checks, as proposed by the president, would not be as effective without it.

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