Analysis: Fact-Checkers Fall Short in Criticizing NRA's Anti-Obama Ads
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
By John R. Lott, Jr.
Guns have become an important issue for Barack Obama’s campaign. Starting around the Pennsylvania primary, Obama and his campaign surrogates began strenuously assuring gun owners that he supports gun ownership, and it appears to be paying off. A poll in August showed that John McCain led Obama among hunters by only 14 percentage points, just about half the 27-point lead that President Bush held over John Kerry in 2004. If McCain had a similar lead, he would be ahead in most polls, particularly in many battleground states.
This past weekend, Joe Biden, campaigning in southwest Virginia, called any notion that Obama wanted to take away people’s guns “malarkey.” Montana's Democratic governor, Brian Schweitzer, previously told reporters that Obama "Ain't ever going to take your gun away." Obama regularly makes similar statements -- at least about rifles and shotguns.
Yet, the NRA, which has given the voting records of both Obama and Biden an “F” rating, has a quite different view, and has started a $15 million ad campaign to warn people about what it regards as Obama’s and Biden’s records. One mailer from the NRA says, "Obama would be the most anti-gun president in American history."
Critical news stories have been run on the NRA’s ads in the Washington Post, FactCheck.org, CNN, and many other places. ABC’s Jake Tapper and CBS’s Brian Montopoli posted stories that merely stated what the NRA ads said.
The Washington Post describes its own Fact Checker report as giving the NRA “spot three out of four Pinocchios for its claims that Obama would take away guns and ammunition used by hunters.”
The Dallas Morning News describes FactCheck.org as saying that “NRA ads and mailers that say Obama wants to ban handguns, hunting ammo and use of a gun for home defense are false.”
CNN labeled the ads as “Misleading” and claimed that “While Obama has supported some measures to limit gun rights, he has backed nothing on the scale suggested in the ad.”
Brooks Jackson, who authored the FactCheck.org piece with D'Angelo Gore, was extremely upset about the NRA ads. Jackson told FOX News: “They are lying. This is what they do. This is how they make their money. Do these people have no shame? They are just making this up. I just wish that they would tell the truth.” He said that their ads were “one of the worst examples of lying” that he had “ever seen.”
But what are the facts? Were the NRA ads this bad? How accurate are the fact checkers? FactCheck.org, which is regularly relied on by FOX News, had the longest critical discussion of the ads. Here is a review of their most critical comments.
"Ban the Manufacture, Sale and Possession of Handguns" -- FactCheck.org writes that this is “false,” because of a 2003 statement from Obama that “a complete ban on handguns is not politically practicable.” They discount an earlier 1996 candidate survey where Obama says that he supports such a ban primarily because it was older than the 2003 statement. While they don’t mention another statement from 1998 where Obama supported a ban on the sale of all semi-automatic guns (a ban that would encompass the vast majority of guns sold in the U.S.), they presumably also discounted that for the same reason.
But Obama has come out for handgun bans as recently as this past February. ABC News’ local Washington, D.C., anchor, Leon Harris, asked Obama: "One other issue that's of great importance here in the district as well is gun control ... but you support the D.C. handgun ban." Obama's simple response: "Right." When Harris said "And you've said that it's constitutional," Obama again says "right" and is clearly seen on tape nodding his head "yes."
A statement to the Chicago Tribune by Obama’s campaign the previous November stated that, "Obama believes the D.C. handgun law is constitutional." It doesn’t help that the Democratic Party National Platform this year supports the Chicago gun ban.
Obama also served on the board of the Joyce Foundation, probably the largest private funder of anti-gun and pro-ban groups and research in the country. In total, the foundation gave $18.6 million to approximately 80 anti-gun efforts while he was on the board. For example, $1.5 million went to the Violence Policy Center, which puts out such claims as “Why America Needs to Ban Handguns.” During Obama’s time with the foundation, not a single donation was made to any group that supported individuals’ rights to own guns.
But there is much more evidence that Obama supported handgun bans. As will be discussed below, there is legislation he supported in the Illinois state senate that would have banned over 90 percent of gun stores in the country and eliminated gun stores in most states.
Brooks Jackson told FOX News that “I believe that [Obama] supported striking down the D.C. gun ban. That is what he said that he believed.” In addition, he said that the ad was “clearly discussing a national ban, not local bans. The two have absolutely nothing to do with each other. It is just an amazing lie.”
Regarding Obama’s work with the Joyce Foundation, Jackson said, “You are an academic? You are asking about the Joyce Foundation? What does that have to do with anything? You would have failed the freshman college logic test.”
"Barack Obama opposes my right to own a handgun for self-defense" -- FactCheck.org rewrites this slightly to read: "Ban use of Firearms for Home Self-Defense" and labels this statement as “false.” Their evaluation of this claim focuses solely on a 2004 vote Obama made in the Illinois state senate. An Associated Press article described the vote this way: "He also opposed letting people use a self-defense argument if charged with violating local handgun bans by using weapons in their homes. The bill was a reaction to a Chicago-area man who, after shooting an intruder, was charged with a handgun violation."
FactCheck.org claims that the vote was merely over creating a “loophole” for letting people violate local gun ban ordinances. Yet, it is hard to look at this vote and the facts in the previous section and not see a pattern that Obama favors rules that ban handguns. He voted against any rules that would weaken the Chicago handgun ban, and if you support a handgun ban, it would seem obvious that you oppose those same people using handguns for self-defense.
"Ban Rifle Ammunition Commonly Used for Hunting and Sport Shooting" -- FactCheck.org acknowledges that Obama voted for a bill that would “expand the definition of armor piercing ammunition,” but labels this statement as “false.” Their evidence is a statement by the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Ted Kennedy, that the bill “is not about hunting.”
But here is the problem with Kennedy’s claim. The bill banned ammunition that “may be used in a handgun” and can penetrate the “minimum,” type 1, level of body armor, which only protects against the lowest-powered handgun cartridges. Any center-fire rifle, including those used for hunting or target practice, can penetrate this “minimum” armor. There are handguns that can fire these rifle rounds, so the bill’s language of banning ammunition that “may be used in a handgun” would be met.
In addition, FactCheck.org ignores other information. Obama said in a 2003 questionnaire that he “support[ed] banning the sale of ammunition for assault weapons.” The rifles banned under the so-called assault weapons ban used such standard ammunition as .223 and .308 caliber bullets, the same ammunition used commonly in hunting rifles.
When asked about these arguments, Jackson told FOX News, “Have you looked at the legislation? You have to look at the legislative history. This is just an amazing lie put out by them.”
"Appoint Judges to the U.S. Supreme Court and Federal Judiciary Who Share His Views on the Second Amendment" -- FactCheck.org claims that this statement is “unsupported” because Obama hasn’t explicitly stated that he would appoint judges using such a litmus test. Indeed, I can find no record of Obama ever being asked if he would use the Second Amendment as a litmus test, but Obama has been very clear about what types of Justices he would and would not appoint to the Supreme Court.
Obama has said that he “profoundly disagree[s] with [Clarence Thomas’] interpretation of a lot of the Constitution." He has also been critical of Antonin Scalia, John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Together these four justices provided four of the five votes to strike down the D.C. gun ban, with Scalia writing the majority opinion.
On the other side, Obama has pointed to Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter, and Stephen Breyer as models for the type of people he would appoint to the court. Those justices provided three of the four votes that argued that there was no individual right to own a gun, and Breyer wrote one of the dissenting opinions.
When asked about whether Obama’s statements about what judges he would appoint could explain the NRA’s concerns, Jackson said that it “doesn’t inform [Jackson’s] view. . . . He hasn’t said that he would appoint people who didn’t believe in the Second Amendment.”
"Mandate a Government-Issued License to Purchase a Firearm" -- FactCheck.org takes Obama’s statement when asked about licensing and registration of gun owners that, "I just don't think we can get that done,” as evidence that the NRA’s claim is "misleading." FactCheck.org concedes that Obama has clearly supported licensing handguns, but argues that there is no evidence that Obama supported licensing for rifles and shotguns. Yet, it fails to mention the Illinois Firearms Owners Identification (FOID) Card that serves as a license that Illinois residents must have to buy any type of firearm.
While a state senator, Obama clearly supported the licensing system. He voted to make it illegal for anyone to possess a firearm without a FOID card even when they were in direct supervision of someone with the card, and he voted against lowering the age for people to be eligible for a FOID card from 21 to 18. To Obama, these votes clearly indicate that the FOID card was a license to use the gun just as much as one needs a driver’s license to drive on public roads.
"Increase Federal Taxes on Guns and Ammunition by 500 Percent" and "Close Down 90 Percent of Gun Shops in America" are classified as “uncertain” because even though Obama has indeed supported these policies in the past, FactCheck.org was unable to get the Obama campaign to state what his current position was on these issues. Yet, it is hard to see how FactCheck.org could even raise questions about the NRA ads on these points since Obama clearly held these positions in the past and has never said that he has changed his mind on them. The very fact that the Obama campaign would not issue any statement disowning these previous positions would seem to imply that Obama still supported them.
"Obama would be the most anti-gun president in American history." -- FactCheck.org ends its analysis by questioning whether this “pretty tall statement” is justified and ends with a quote that Obama says that he has “always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms.” Yet, this is the same candidate who months earlier supported a ban on guns as constitutional and who refused join the other 55 Senators who signed the friend of the court brief asking the Supreme Court to strike down the D.C. gun ban. While previous candidates, such as Al Gore, have supported licensing and registration, no presidential nominee for a major party has ever supported such widespread bans on guns and ammunition.
Jackson said that “Obama agrees with the NRA on this issue (that the Second Amendment is an individual right). They should just accept it rather than lying about it.” He noted that “Obama had to accept all sorts of abuse for coming out and saying this. It was the brave thing for him to do. He had to endure all sorts of abuse – claims of going back and forth on the issue, that he was vague on the issue.”
Obama campaign representative Bill Burton told FOX News that "These ads are just complete crap." When Megyn Kelly asked "Has [Obama] ever supported a ban on handguns? . . . And he never has?" Burton said flatly "no." He added that "All the points in these ads are just flatly false."
The Washington Post analysis only discusses two issues: the Kennedy ammunition ban and the 500 percent ammunition tax. On the Kennedy bill, the Post makes the same mistake as FactCheck.org. Regarding the tax, the Post doesn’t deny that Obama held that position, but points out that the legislation Obama supported was in 1999 and that it is not clear what guns would have their ammunition taxed. CNN’s discussion appears unwilling to admit that Obama has supported large-scale bans on gun ownership.
John Lott is the author of Freedomnomics and a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland.