Tonight: Obama's town hall on guns

President Barack Obama announced a package of executive actions to expand gun regulations Jan. 4. (Sacramento Bee video)

President Barack Obama will explain and defend his new executive actions on gun regulations at a CNN town hall Thursday.

CNN anchor Anderson Cooper will host the program at 8 p.m. ET. PolitiFact will be watching and live-tweeting. Follow along with us on Twitter and Facebook.

Obama’s executive actions are intended to improve the firearm background check system, enforcement of existing gun laws, mental health treatment and gun safety technology.

To do this, he has directed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to clarify which kinds of gun sellers require a license. He has requested ATF and the FBI to hire hundreds more employees to process background checks and enforce existing law. The Social Security Administration and Department of Health and Human Services will develop rules to streamline moving mental health information to the background check system. And he has directed the Departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security to research safe gun technology, such as "smart guns."

It’s up for debate how much of a future impact these executive actions will have. An Associated Press analysis showed the measures would not have prevented quite a few of the high-profile shootings from the past few years, like in Newtown, Conn., and San Bernardino, Calif. Any major changes to gun laws would have to go through Congress.

As he tearfully announced his actions, Obama lamented what he sees as shortcomings in the current law. He said, "A violent felon can buy (a gun) over the Internet with no background check, no questions asked."

We rated this statement Mostly True. The kind of transaction Obama described is possible, though illegal, and more complicated than his comment suggests. Federal law prohibits felons from buying guns. But with some effort, they can purchase guns from private sellers over the Internet without getting caught because private sellers are not required to run background checks. That seller would have to be in the same state as the buyer, and the actual transfer of the weapon would have to take place in person.

Gun violence and gun control have been major political themes over the past year, so we’ve fact-checked quite a few statements from pundits and politicians on the topic.  

Popular support for background checks

Gun control advocates often cite the statistic that 90 percent of Americans support expanding background checks for gun purchases. But conservative radio talk show host Laura Ingraham says that’s wrong. "The 90 percent statistic of supporting background checks, that's been debunked," she said Jan. 3.

Numerous respected polls from 2015 show around 90 percent support for some sort of expanded background checks for gun purchases. While there are some questions as to what inferences can be made from these findings, there hasn’t been a definitive debunking of the statistic. We rated Ingraham’s claim False.

PolitiFact Wisconsin also found that a majority of National Rifle Association members also support background checks on all gun purchases.

Possible shortcomings in current law

On the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton lambasted a 2005 law that she said turned the gun industry into "the only business in America that is wholly protected from any kind of liability."

We rated Clinton’s claim False.

The law says the gun industry is protected from lawsuits in certain instances, but the law also specifies several situations in which the gun industry is susceptible to lawsuits. Further, Congress has passed a number of laws that protect a variety of business sectors from lawsuits in certain situations, so the situation is not unique to the gun industry.

PolitiFact California looked into a claim from Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., about the fact that under current law, thousands of people on the FBI’s terrorist watch list have been able to purchase guns legally.

"Since 2004, more than 2,000 suspected terrorists have legally purchased weapons in the United States," he said.

This rates Mostly True. FBI data that show 2,043 people on the agency’s terror watch list successfully applied for weapons at licensed gun shops over the past decade. The congressman left out the fact that a federal audit found that some of the names remained on the list when they should have been removed.

Frequency of gun deaths

After the mass shooting at an Oregon community college, Obama said, "States with the most gun laws tend to have the fewest gun deaths."

We rated that claim Mostly True. This is an overly general statement. The research doesn’t prove a universal cause-and-effect relationship between gun laws and fewer gun deaths; it might just be a correlation. Some laws are more effective than others, and other cultural, demographic or socioeconomic factors might be the driving force behind the number of gun deaths in different states.

Obama also said last year "This type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency."

The data show that it clearly happens in other countries, and in at least three of them, there’s evidence that the rate of killings in mass-shooting events occurred at a higher per-capita rate than in the United States between 2000 and 2014. The only partial support for Obama’s claim is that the per-capita, gun-incident fatality rate in the United States does rank in the top one-third of the list of 11 countries studied. On balance, we rated the claim Mostly False.

In one of our most popular fact-checks of 2015, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof said, "More Americans have died from guns in the United States since 1968 than on battlefields of all the wars in American history." That is True. About 1.4 million have died in wars since the country’s founding, while 1.5 million have died from gun-inflicted injuries since 1968.