AP fact check: Obama gun-control actions wouldn't have stopped any mass shooting

To paraphrase Samuel Johnson: media fact-checks on Barack Obama’s claims about guns may not be done entirely well … but one is surprised to find them done at all. Following Obama’s emotional press conference yesterday, both the Associated Press and the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler conducted some research into his claims and his proposals. Both of them found serious holes in Obama’s arguments.


Let’s start with the AP’s Michael Sisak, who corroborated arguments gun-rights advocates have been making ever since word began leaking out about the executive actions Obama would take:

The gun control measures a tearful President Barack Obama announced Tuesday would not have prevented the slaughters of 20 first-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, or 14 county workers at a holiday party in San Bernardino, California. …

Those measures are seen as crucial to stemming gun suicides — the cause of two-thirds of gun deaths — by blocking immediate access to weapons. But, an Associated Press review shows, they would have had no impact in keeping weapons from the hands of suspects in several of the deadliest recent mass shootings that have spurred calls for tighter gun control.

The shooters at Sandy Hook and San Bernardino used weapons bought by others, shielding them from background checks. In other cases, the shooters legally bought guns.

Sisak appends his analysis with a detailed list of mass shootings over the past three-plus years, and notes in each why the changes announced by Obama end up being non-sequiturs. The only shooting that might have been prevented by federal action should have been stopped anyway. Dylann Roof had a drug arrest on his record, which should have flagged his application to purchase a firearm, but a records screw-up allowed Roof to buy his weapon — and Obama’s proposals wouldn’t have changed that, either.


In fact, hardly anyone buys their weapons through the supposed “loophole” Obama purported to close yesterday, Liz Peek argues:

Access to guns by unfit people has almost nothing to do with the “gun show loophole,” which turns out to be another one of those convenient myths that has driven Obama policy–like the false suggestion that a goodly share of our prison population are innocent victims of overly-harsh drug laws.

After the Sandy Hook tragedy, President Obama convened a group overseen by Vice President Joe Biden to study gun control issues. In a 2013 speech, the president proposed various policies meant to check such killings, including expanding background checks to private sales of firearms. He noted that any sales through federally licensed vendors require background checks to eliminate those with a criminal history or mental health issues, but also claimed, “It’s hard to enforce that law when as many as 40 percent of all gun purchases are conducted without a background check.”

This assertion was debunked by FactCheck, which points out that the dubious 40 percent statistic emerged from a 1994 telephone survey of only 251 individuals. The author of that study told Politifact that he has “no idea” if that number is valid; Biden takes pains when discussing the topic to say the figure may be incorrect. Other analysts cite 4% as a more accurate share of gun sales through unlicensed dealers, given that a large number of the people surveyed said they had received guns from friends or relatives.

A 2001 survey of state and federal prisoners discovered that less than one percenthad bought their weapons at a gun show. Another study, of inmates of the Cook County jail, claimed that 70 percent of those locked up had acquired their weapons from friends or gang members; another favorite source was “straw” purchases made by someone capable of passing the background check. Only two had actually had actually bought a gun at a store.


Still, Obama kept pushing this notion as a pressing reason for acting unilaterally to do … not very much, as it turns out. “The problem is some gun sellers have been operating under a different set of rules,” Obama claimed. “A violent felon can buy the exact same weapon over the Internet with no background check, no questions asked.” This is absolute poppycock, at least as far as the law is concerned, which applies to all commercial/retail gun sales. Glenn Kessler found himself deluged by demands for a fact check, and responded today with a two-Pinocchio rating for this statement:

Administration officials say his point was that electronic commerce has made it easier for prohibited people such as felons to obtain firearms (or to hide such transactions from scrutiny behind the dark Web). Put in those terms, his statement is reasonable. Illegal markets often exploit new forms of commerce.

But many readers believed Obama was asserting the rules were different for the Internet — that it legally permitted violent felons to obtain guns.

We agree that Obama’s language is slippery and could be confusing to the average person who doesn’t know anything about FFLs and interstate requirements. There is nothing unique about the Internet; the laws governing private transactions and interstate sales are exactly the same. It’s the same as offering to sell a gun on a bulletin board, except the bulletin board is significantly larger. The Internet, and eletronic payment systems such as PayPal and Bitcoin, have certainly facilitated transactions that in the past would have been more difficult to arrange.

Obama erred in saying the rules are different for Internet sellers. They face the same rules as other sellers — rules that the administration now says it will enforce better.


Clearly, Obama wasn’t faulting enforcement; he demanded changes in the law, challenging Congress to act to close this supposed “loophole.” His language is slippery and dishonest, and it has been consistently both on this point for years. Kessler gave him two Pinocchios for getting it wrong, but the error in this case has been repetitive and deliberate. Kessler does a good job of getting the facts straight, but seems a bit too gracious under the circumstances to a president who’s been demagoguing on this false premise for a very long time. Kudos for taking up the challenge, but I’d have leaned toward the four-Pinocchio result, with an extra scolding for trying to sell this with a super-sized serving of lachrymose.

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