“The gun show loophole — it means anyone can buy a gun without a background check: the dangerously mentally ill, criminals — endangering our families.”

— Voiceover of Independence USA PAC ad attacking Virginia GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, as images flash of killers Seung-Hui Cho, Aaron Alexis, Adam Lanza and James Holmes

Independence USA PAC, the Super PAC backed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is reportedly spending $1.1 million on ads supporting Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the race for Virginia governor. This ad attacks Cuccinelli for his uncompromising stance on gun rights, such as not supporting proposals that would close the so-called “gun show loophole.”

What’s the loophole? Licensed dealers at gun shows must undertake a background check of potential purchasers, but non-dealers can skirt that requirement, as can those making sales in the parking lot.

We’ve previously noted that the data on guns purchased without background checks, including the often-repeated statistic that 40 percent of gun purchases lack a background check, is rather dated and often mischaracterized. When we dug into the data, some 20 years old, it turned out that the figure is actually between 14 to 22 percent. That’s a big difference.

Moreover, a 2004 study found that less than 2 percent of inmates incarcerated from crimes committed with handguns said they bought their gun at a gun show or a flea market. (The biggest sources by far were friends/family or “the street.”)

In other words, it’s often hard to tie mass murders to guns bought at gun shows. So what did the ad do about this?

The Facts

The ad quickly shows images of four mass murderers in this order: Seung-Hui Cho, Aaron Alexis, Adam Lanza and James Holmes. None are identified by name.

Where did they get their guns?

Seung-Hui Cho (2009): The Virginia Tech shooter purchased one gun from an online dealer and a second gun from a full-service gun dealer. In both cases, he passed the federal background check conducted for Virginia gun dealers by state police. Cho suffered from mental illness, and a better record-keeping for mental health records might have prevented him from buying guns. The Manchin-Toomey bill to tighten gun-show sales, which failed in the Senate this year, would have pushed states to put the records of  prohibited purchasers into the federal system; in theory, that law might have prevent Cho from buying guns, but the ad does not mention that provision of the bill.

Aaron Alexis (2013): The Navy Yard shooter bought his Remington 870 shotgun at a gun store and shooting range in Newington, Va. He also submitted to a computerized background check administered by state police.

Adam Lanza (2012): The shooter at the elementary school in Newtown, Conn., simply used guns that had been legally purchased by his mother—whom he also killed.

James Holmes (2012): The shooter at a cinema in Aurora, Colo., legally purchased guns — two Glock 22 pistols, a Remington 870 shotgun and a Smith & Wesson semi-automatic rifle — at three Colorado gun stores, after being approved via the federal background check system. He also purchased thousands of rounds of ammunition over the Internet.

In other words, none of these tragedies would have been prevented by closing the gun-show loophole, but a small case might be made that maintaining better records on mentally ill people might have made a difference.

The ad is also a bit confusing because when it mentions that Cuccinelli opposed closing the gun show loophole, it cites a 2008 Richmond Times-Dispatch article concerning a vote on a gun-control bill in the Virginia legislature — not the more recent federal legislation.

“The images of the killers is over the language that says ‘the dangerously mentally ill, criminals,'” said Stu Loeser, a spokesman for Bloomberg and the PAC. “We never say those killers got their guns from gun shows and that the background check would have prevented them in particular. They are there as representatives of killers and mentally ill people, which is what the script is saying.”

The Pinocchio Test

Emotional attack ads need to be scrupulous with the facts. While this ad does not identify the killers, the images are so familiar to Americans that many should be able to identify at least one of them.

We have a reasonable-person test here. Most viewers would assume the gun-show loophole would have thwarted all of these attacks, but that’s not the case. Thus it is misleading to use these images in the ad.

Three Pinocchios

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