NBC aired the fourth Democratic presidential debate on Jan. 17 featuring three candidates: former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley.
Not every statement could be easily fact checked, but the following is a list of 10 suspicious or interesting claims. As is our practice, we do not award Pinocchios when we do a roundup of facts in debates.
“In 1988, there were three candidates running for Congress in the state of Vermont. I stood up to the gun lobby and came out and maintained the position, that in this country, we should not be selling military-style assault weapons. I have supported, from day one, an instant background check to make certain that people who should not have guns do not have guns, and that includes people with criminal backgrounds, people who are mentally unstable.”
— Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.)
Sanders did come out against assault weapons in 1988. But what he doesn’t say is that in 1990, despite his stance on the assault weapons ban, the National Rifle Association helped him get elected to Congress.
Sanders’s opponent in the 1988 election, who had promised not to vote for a ban on assault weapons, changed his mind once he got to Washington. This angered the NRA, which campaigned for Sanders in the 1990 election. At least Sanders, according to the NRA, was consistent in his stance against assault weapons.
Sanders did vote for instant background checks “from day one.” But his early votes for instant background checks would have killed the Brady bill, which established a background check system and wait periods for people buying handguns from licensed dealers.
In opposition to the waiting period mandate in the Brady bill, which Congress passed in 1993, the NRA instead offered an amendment to require instant criminal background checks. This amendment required gun dealers to call a national telephone hotline at the FBI to find out whether the buyers had criminal records.
But such a technology for an instant check didn’t exist at the time – and criminal court and prison records weren’t yet computerized in about half the states.
So that meant the information could not be incorporated into the FBI’s criminal identification system to be checked with a phone call, as the amendment required. So gun-control advocates argued the instant background check amendment would render the Brady bill’s provisions moot.
Sanders voted to expand background checks in the aftermath of the mass school shooting in Newtown, Conn., in 2012. This background check provision — which did not become law — was to require a check through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System for all firearm sales and to prohibit the straw purchase of firearms.
“There’s no other industry in America that was given the total pass that the gun makers and dealers were, and that needs to be reversed.”
— Hillary Clinton
Clinton is correct that the gun industry was given broad immunity in the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, but she overstates the case a bit by saying it received a “total pass” — or that it was alone.
Vaccine manufacturers, for instance, have limited protection from lawsuits if their vaccine led to an injury. The federal government enacted this immunity to encourage companies to produce more vaccines without the fear of lawsuits, for their benefit to public health. Another example is federal protection for the airline industry from lawsuits arising from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But unlike the gun law, both cases established a compensation scheme for victims to recover money for damages. Online service providers also have immunity from lawsuits from victims of online defamation.
Moreover, there are some exceptions. Gun dealers can be sued if they knowingly transfer a gun that would be used for criminal purposes, while gun manufacturers can be sued if injuries result from a defective product that is used properly.
Sanders “voted for what we call, the ‘Charleston loophole.’ ”
Clinton is referring to a recent gun tragedy — the June 17 killing of nine people at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C. The alleged shooter, Dylann Roof, legally purchased his .45-caliber Glock pistol from a store, but the FBI later said he should have failed the background check because he had been charged with possessing Suboxone, a Schedule III narcotic, without a prescription.
However, because of clerical mistakes, the FBI examiner did not obtain the report before the three-day waiting period ended, so the store went through with the purchase.
Since then, some gun-control advocates have starting calling the three-day waiting period the “Charleston loophole.” The provision emerged in the final version of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act that Congress passed in 1993.
Sanders voted repeatedly against the Brady bill, which in its original version had a 10-day waiting period. But he did vote for an NRA-backed amendment, sponsored by then-Rep. George Gekas (R-Pa.), that altered the Brady bill to require instant criminal background checks five years after enactment, even though the technology did not exist at the time. The waiting period would sunset within five years, once the system was expected to be operational.
Until passage of the amendment, the Brady bill at that point had a seven-day waiting period. But the amendment — pushed by a lawmaker close to the NRA — requiring the instant background system also cut the processing time to just 24 hours if the instant background system didn’t come back with an answer.
Later, after negotiations between the Senate and the House, the final version of the Brady bill emerged with a three-day period to allow law-enforcement officials to process the information.
In the specific case of Roof, the FBI examiner became confused about South Carolina geography, initially contacting the wrong county court to find out the status of the criminal case pending against him. Would an extra four days have made a difference in sorting out the right legal venue? No one knows for sure, but it’s certainly possible.
Sanders “voted to let guns go on to Amtrak, guns go into national parks. He voted against doing research to figure out how we can save lives.”
Clinton accurately cited Sanders’s votes.
In 2009, Sanders voted for a measure to allow “law-abiding Amtrak passengers” to bring firearms in their checked baggage. The measure was an amendment to the federal budget blueprint, saying that federal financial assistance will not be provided to Amtrak unless Amtrak allows passengers to check firearms in their baggage.
Sanders voted for another bill in 2009 to allow law-abiding, licensed gun owners to bring firearms into national parks and wildlife refugees.
In 1996, Sanders voted against the Lowey-Castle amendment to restore gun research funding. The amendment, which failed, would have given an additional $2.6 million to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for research on issues related to firearms. The restrictions on CDC funding was put into the federal budget at the urging of gun-rights supporters, according to Reuters.
On the campaign trail, Sanders has called on more funding for CDC to fund gun violence studies. Reuters quoted Sanders’s campaign email saying: “We must authorize resources for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study and research the causes and effects of gun violence in the United States of America.” The email was sent a day after a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.
“We now have driven costs down to the lowest they’ve been in 50 years.”
Clinton significantly overstates the impact of the Affordable Care Act here. Costs are not the lowest in 50 years, but the United States in 2012 had the lowest increase in health-care costs in 50 years. In other words, costs are still climbing, just not as fast as they have in the past.
Moreover, a direct connection between this trend and the Affordable Care Act is in dispute. Health-care cost increases slowed around the world during the Great Recession — and health-care experts have predicted that cost increases will start to climb again because millions of Americans have gained health insurance through the law.
“Senator Sanders called him weak, disappointing. He even, in 2011, publicly sought someone to run in a primary against President Obama.”
The Clinton campaign points to an interview that Sanders gave to the Thom Hartmann Radio Program on July 22, 2011, in which he expressed “deep disappointment” with Obama, calling him “weak” in dealing with Republicans.
“One of the reasons the president has been able to move so far to the right is that there is no primary opposition to him,” he said. “I think it would do this country a good deal of service if people started thinking about candidates out there to begin contrasting what is a progressive agenda.”
“Senator Sanders, you’re the only one on this stage that voted to deregulate the financial market in 2000, to take the cops off the street, to use Governor O’Malley’s phrase, to make the SEC and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission no longer able to regulate swaps and derivatives, which were one of the main causes of the collapse in ’08.”
Clinton correctly cites Sanders’s vote for the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, which deregulated interest-rate swaps and other over-the-counter derivatives. She neglected to mention that her husband, then-President Bill Clinton, signed the bill.
“We made our public schools No. 1 in America more than five years in a row.”
— former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley
O’Malley touts this factoid often. He’s correct that Maryland public schools placed No. 1 in Education Week’s annual rankings from 2009 through 2013. But new methodology has dropped the state from No. 1 to third place for the 2014-15 school year.
The Baltimore Sun reported that if that methodology had been applied previously, Maryland would have ranked third in 2012, 2013 and 2014. The campaign has said the reduction in ranking does not mean the quality of schools has dropped. (Education Week researchers have said the same.)
“But the fact that the state’s ranking can change when one reputable methodology is exchanged for another illustrates the danger in reading too much into a first-place finish,” according to the Baltimore Sun. It’s also unclear how much O’Malley’s policies contributed to the rankings, because Education Week did not consistently assess public school systems before O’Malley’s inauguration, the newspaper said.
“We have a $600 billion military budget. It is a budget larger than the next eight countries.”
Sanders repeats a line that Obama used in his State of the Union address. But it’s a bit facile.
The most widely cited public source for this claim is the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tallies public numbers each year. SIPRI urges caution in how its data is used, saying that “attempts to draw conclusions about a country’s level of military capability from its level of military expenditure should be regarded with considerable skepticism.”
That’s because raw numbers can be misleading. The official Chinese figures are believed to be understated — and it costs China less money to buy the same goods and services as it does the United States. A rough calculation of purchasing power parity suggests that the correct figure for Chinese defense spending could be double the official estimates.
The comparison to China also does not include the fact that because it is not a global power, Beijing may actually spend more on its military in the western Pacific than the United States does.
Moreover, the United States ranks ninth when military spending is measured as a percentage of the gross domestic product, according to the CIA Factbook. Percentage of GDP is a good indicator of how a country chooses to use its resources — the top ranks of the list are dominated by oil-rich Middle Eastern countries and Israel — but the statistic does not shed much light on the effectiveness of a country’s military. So there are also limitations in that comparison.
“I have a [Wall Street] plan that most commentators have said is tougher, more comprehensive, more effective [than Sanders’s]. … Paul Krugman, Barney Frank and others have all endorsed my plan.”
Clinton exaggerates the endorsements of her Wall Street plan.
She’s correct that Krugman and Frank have supported her plan — but it’s important to note that Frank advised her on drafting the plan, so he’s not exactly coming from an objective point of view.
The Fact Checker’s review of experts provided by both Clinton and Sanders campaigns found that Clinton has gotten support from a range of PhD economists, former and current government officials, and industry and think-tank representatives.
But she also has received some pointed criticism of her plan from a range of those experts. Meanwhile, the Sanders campaign has compiled a list of 60 experts and counting, backing his plan over Clinton’s. It’s not fair to say that “most commentators” support her plan over Sanders’s.
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