Monday, November 24th, 2014

Fact-checking guns: A year-end report

In 2013, we fact-checked a lot of claims about guns, including one from this PAC ad supporting Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.

From day one, 2013 was fraught with grief. Just a couple of weeks earlier, Adam Lanza killed his mother, six educators and 20 elementary school students before shooting himself in Newtown, Conn.

As the town faded from the spotlight to recover, eyes turned back to Sanford, Fla., where neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman had shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager, in February 2012. On July 13, a jury found Zimmerman not guilty, continuing a lengthy debate about "stand your ground" laws.

Following these events and others, talk of tightening and loosening gun restrictions has permeated the national conversation. We’ve been busy all year following gun rhetoric to vet claims from all sides.

What’s going on with gun violence, anyway?

Since PolitiFact has fact-checked guns extensively, perhaps it’s surprising that our most important lesson doesn’t come from the facts that we proved right or wrong. Rather, the most salient point from 2013 is that there are many facts we don’t have enough data to rule on.

Right now, due to a lack of research, we can’t concretely say how many guns are in civilian hands, a statistic Washington, nonvoting congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton tried to get at after the Navy Yard shooting. We rated her claim Half True.

Most states don’t register guns or license owners, so our most accurate data is from the 1990s, before Congress nixed government-sponsored gun violence research at the National Rifle Association’s insistence.

Slate showed us that, due to this lack of research, even a question as seemingly simple as "How many people have been killed by guns since Newtown?" is tough to answer definitively. They’re still trying via crowdsourcing.

But restricted access to data doesn’t mean we didn’t stumble upon the occasional kernel of truth in the political sphere.

One of the most interesting examples is that Vice President Joe Biden said that since Newtown, more people died by gunshot than have died in the entirety of the war in Afghanistan. We rated his claim True after finding that at least twice as many people were killed by guns as in the 12 years of war.

Following Newtown, President Barack Obama released a plan to reduce gun violence through methods like strengthening background checks, getting more dangerous weapons off the streets and securing schools. Also of note is that the White House called to "end the freeze on gun violence research."

Legislative trends

While it’s tough to get all the facts on guns, one aspect of the debate is more clear-cut: legislation.

One point of contention is background checks. Are background checks effective in preventing gun purchases? Some conservatives say no due to a low number of prosecutions of prospective customers. However, citing that talking point leaves out the fact that a significant number of customers with previous felony convictions are blocked through background checks (but just not prosecuted).

We’ve rated several of these claims Half True or Mostly False because of the way they try to slant federal gun policy during the Obama administration.

Do most Americans even support background checks? Well, yes, as Obama pointed out in a statement we rated Mostly True based on Quinnipiac University poll results.

In April, a background check amendment sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., would have expanded background checks to gun shows and Internet sales. But it fell six votes short of passing the Senate.

There’s still a lot of confusion surrounding the issue. Manchin claimed his bill didn’t pass because people hadn’t read it.

Meanwhile, claims about the bill omitted part of the truth, like Marco Rubio’s PAC ad, which said that Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R.-N.H., had voted in favor of fixing background checks. Ayotte actually voted against Manchin’s bill, though she did support an alternative bill that wasn’t considered as strong. We rated the ad’s claim Half True.

In a way, the most memorable part of federal gun legislation in 2013 is that the Senate shut it down.