Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell may have the backing of the National Rifle Association in his quest for a sixth term as Kentucky’s U.S. Senator, but his Republican primary opponent insists McConnell is weak on Second Amendment issues.
Businessman Matt Bevin released a 15-second TV ad on Feb. 19, 2014, that not only attacked McConnell’s record on guns, but claimed McConnell’s positions were closely aligned with his Democratic counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
"Mitch McConnell voted with Harry Reid to infringe on our gun rights," the ad said. "Matt Bevin always support the Second Amendment. The choice is clear."
We were surprised to see McConnell attacked on his support of the Second Amendment, having just won the "Defender of Freedom" award from the NRA.
So we took a deeper dive into this ad to see what it’s getting at.
Dissecting the 1991 crime bill
The ad isn’t referencing the gun debate of the last two years — or even of the last two decades.
Instead, Bevin’s campaign points to a Senate vote from 1991, when McConnell was just starting his second term in office, to support the claim.
Back then, President George H.W. Bush sent an anti-crime bill to Congress that would "toughen a number of laws to cover more violent crimes and would impose the death penalty for certain federal offenses," according to a Boston Globe report from the time.
Democrats, who controlled both chambers of Congress, were critical of the bill for not addressing ownership of assault weapons and other gun control measures. And though Bush called for the bill to be passed within 100 days, a contentious showdown ensued.
The Senate version of the bill, called the Violent Crime Control Act of 1991 and proposed by then-Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., included an assault weapons ban from the outset and a seven-day waiting period to purchase handguns.
The sprawling bill also sent $1 billion to local law enforcement agencies and courts, and expanded mandatory minimum sentencing and use of the death penalty.
Senators filed hundreds of amendments to the legislation. Two of the most controversial dealt with gun ownership. A compromise measure shrunk the waiting period to purchase a handgun to five days and laid out parameters for a speedy federal background check. It passed with significant Republican support.
But not from McConnell, who opposed any wait period on background checks, his campaign said. The Kentucky senator joined 23 Republicans and eight Democrats to vote against the five-day waiting period. (Reid voted for the measure).
The other notable amendment was an NRA-backed measure that would have completely eliminated the waiting period to buy handguns. Before the vote, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a proponent of the amendment, told his colleagues, "Everybody here better understand this is the key vote" that will tell whether "you're either for or against the Second Amendment right to buy arms."
McConnell voted for the NRA’s amendment. Reid did as well. But it did not pass, only mustering 44 votes.
The vote that Bevin’s ad singled out was neither of those, but a vote on final passage of the Senate version of the omnibus crime bill, which passed 71-36. McConnell joined Reid in voting for the measure. McConnell also voted to invoke cloture and end debate on the bill earlier in the day.
McConnell’s campaign said he only backed the bill because he supported the tougher sentences and money for local police, and to push the bill into a conference committee with the House, where he hoped the gun measures would be removed.
Bevin’s campaign said that "is the classic Washington way of pretending you are against something in your state, but support the measure in Washington" and he should have worked to defeat the measure entirely.
Killing the bill
But in fact, McConnell did work to defeat the final bill. Though the Senate crime bill had support from President Bush, House and Senate Democrats and Republicans couldn’t agree to a comprehensive measure in the conference committee. Instead, the Democratic majority forced through a bill that had less bipartisan support.
The conference bill passed the House by two votes but stalled in the Senate for the rest of 1991 and 1992 under the threat of veto from Bush. With a filibuster in place, Senate Democrats couldn’t reach the 60 votes needed to pass the bill, despite three attempts, in part because the compromise bill had tighter gun restrictions.
All three times the bill came up for a cloture vote to end debate, McConnell voted against it. Reid, however, voted to invoke cloture twice and once did not vote at all.
So that was 1991. In 2013, McConnell held his caucus firmly together against attempts to restrict and regulate gun purchases after the December 2012 Connecticut school shooting at Newtown. The Senate failed to reach the 60 votes needed on measures to expand background checks on gun purchases, to ban assault weapons and to restrict high capacity magazines. McConnell voted no each time and under his stewardship, Republicans blocked the bills from passing.
Reid voted in favor of the assault weapon and high capacity magazine bans. He voted against the expanded background checks, a procedural move that allowed him to bring the amendment up for vote again in the future.
Bevin’s ad says "Mitch McConnell voted with Harry Reid to infringe on our gun rights." The ad focuses on a vote McConnell took more than 22 years ago on a massive crime bill that included dozens of votes and amendments and didn’t even pass Congress.
The law failed, with McConnell voting against it, and Reid voting for it. On amendments, McConnell sided with firearm lobbyists when a closely watched provision came up for a vote. The only evidence the Bevin campaign offered was that McConnell voted to advance the bill to a conference committee (as did Reid), but that was a brief point in the legislative process. To hang this attack on a handful of long-ago votes — when he much more recently helped kill gun control legislation — is absurd.
So overall, Bevin’s add goes back to 1991 to cherry-pick votes and make it seem like McConnell and Reid were on the same side. Actually, McConnell repeatedly voted against the 1991 bill, on both its gun restrictions and the overall measure. The claim that McConnell voted with Harry Reid to infringe gun rights is contradicted by many other votes, both then and now. The claim is not only wrong, but ridiculous, and we rate it Pants on Fire.