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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Gun Rights Group’s Aim Is Way Off

A conservative gun rights group is going after three congressmen with “A” ratings from the National Rifle Association by falsely claiming they support President Obama’s gun control agenda.

  • TV ads attacking Virginia Republicans Eric Cantor and Scott Rigell and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin falsely accuse the three congressmen of supporting a federal gun registry. They have expressed varying degrees of support for enhanced background checks, but none has supported a federal gun registry. Nor is such a registry even being proposed.
  • A claim that Rigell and Manchin support Obama’s gun agenda is false. Neither has backed the most controversial part of Obama’s plan: banning assault weapons and large capacity magazines.

The National Association for Gun Rights, which takes a more conservative line on gun rights than the NRA, has spent $50,000 on TV and radio ads attacking the gun rights bona fides of three legislators who have enjoyed the backing of the NRA. At the end of each ad, the politicians’ faces morph into Obama’s to drive home the bogus claim that they are pushing the president’s gun control agenda.

Obama’s gun control plan would require criminal background checks for all gun sales, including private sales, and would ban certain military-style, semi-automatic firearms and high-capacity magazines. Although political momentum for an assault weapons ban appears to be waning, Obama has not wavered from that goal. In a speech in Denver on April 3, Obama reiterated his pledge to “keep weapons of war and high-capacity ammunition magazines that facilitate mass killings off our streets.” He also repeated his call for universal and beefed-up background checks.

That is far different from the public positions adopted by the three legislators targeted by the NAGR ads.

The NAGR’s ad campaign has garnered news attention recently because Rigell questioned the group’s association with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who has lent his name to the group’s fundraising efforts. Paul, a Republican, denied he has any role in setting the group’s agenda, but he refused to repudiate the group.

No ‘Federal Database Registration System’

All three ads accuse the congressmen of supporting a plan to create a federal database registration system. That’s not true. As we have written before, current law bars the FBI from retaining records on those who pass background checks, and nothing in the president’s plan — nor those proposed by the congressmen — would change that.

Rigell took to the radio airwaves to contest the NAGR ad, and told Politico the claim that he is supporting the creation of a national database of firearm owners is “an egregious lie, and completely unfounded.”

Some gun rights groups make a “slippery slope” argument that background checks could lead to a federal gun registry, but that’s simply not part of any of the plans being considered in Congress.

The FBI is required to destroy any records generated by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System — which was created as a result of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993. The law strictly prohibits the “registration of firearms, firearm owners, or firearm transactions” of those who pass the background check. Since 2004, Congress has inserted language in annual spending bills requiring the FBI to destroy firearm transfer records within 24 hours of approval. Although Obama has proposed a universal background check system, nothing in his plan would result in the establishment of a federal firearm registry.

As Obama said recently, “We’re not proposing a gun registration system, we’re proposing background checks for criminals.”

Let’s take a look at some of the other specific claims in the NAGR ads.

The Claims About Rigell

According to the NAGR ad, “Congressman Scott Rigell has teamed up with anti-gun Congresswoman Caroline McCarthy to pass Obama’s gun control. Rigell and McCarthy’s legislation could make you a criminal if you sell a gun without federal approval and it falls into the wrong hands.”

The bill — H.R. 452, which Rigell proposed along with Democratic Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Elijah Cummings, and Republican Rep. Pat Meehan — is known as the “Gun Trafficking Prevention Act of 2013.” McCarthy, who was mentioned in the ad, was one of 102 cosponsors. The law seeks to crack down on gun trafficking and on “straw” buyers who purchase guns on behalf of others they know to be prohibited from possessing a firearm. The legislation is not opposed by the NRA, according to the Virginian-Pilot.

Obama’s gun plan also calls for tougher enforcement against “straw purchasers.” But to call the bill an effort to pass “Obama’s gun control” ignores the much more controversial parts of Obama’s plan — banning assault weapons and requiring universal background checks, for example — which aren’t part of the bill Rigell cosponsored.

The ad’s claim that Rigell’s legislation “could make you a criminal if you sell a gun without federal approval and it falls into the wrong hands” is also highly misleading. In order to run afoul of the proposed law, the purchaser has to “know” or have “reasonable cause to believe” the person they are buying the gun for is prohibited by federal or state law from possessing a firearm.

The ad claims Rigell “also wants gun owners in a federal registration system.” As evidence, the ad cites a Feb. 5 article in the Virginian Pilot that states that Rigell “doesn’t object to toughening federal background check regulations for gun sales.” But that’s not the same thing as creating a federal registration system, as we explained earlier.

Rigell, who got an A- rating from the NRA last year, wrote on his congressional website on Feb. 28: “As a gun owner, hunter, and lifetime member of the NRA, I have not and will not support legislation which establishes in any form a national registry of guns or gun owners.”

“To say the bill creates a federal registry is laughable,” Rigell wrote of his bill.

The Claims About Cantor

The NAGR ad against Cantor accuses the House majority leader of hatching a plan to improve the Republican Party that “starts with passing President Obama’s gun control schemes.”

The ad goes on to say that Cantor “wants to herd even more gun owners into a federal database registration system, to let Washington bureaucrats strip gun rights from veterans and other Americans without trial if they seek mental health counseling, to deny law-abiding Virginians the right to buy, sell or even trade a gun without federal approval, to once again blame honest gun owners for the actions of criminals.”

While the ad’s voiceover states that Cantor is trying to pass “Obama’s gun control schemes,” the text on the screen offers a more qualified description, that Cantor supports “key parts of Obama’s gun control.”

Cantor — who got an A+ rating from the NRA last year — did say he supports improving background checks, but he did not say whether he supports expanding background checks to include private sales.

In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, Virginia implemented a system to link mental health information to law enforcement databases used for gun background checks. Cantor has said that he supports using Virginia’s initiative as a national model.

“I think we can take a lot of lessons from what Virginia did and put it in place at the federal level, because there’s a lot of states that are not doing what Virginia is doing to try and beef up the database for the background checks to make sure that we actually can do something that does have a chance at reducing the likelihood and hopefully eliminating that from happening again,” Cantor told CNN on Feb. 5. “I am for making sure that we increase the quality of information in the database that is in existence already.”

In an email to FactCheck.org, Cantor’s press office declined to elaborate on the congressman’s position. But what he said is not the same thing as supporting universal background checks (nor would it be supporting a “federal database registration system” even if he did back universal checks). Nor does Cantor’s public position indicate any support for Obama’s controversial proposal for an assault weapons ban.

The ad leaves the impression that Cantor supports much of the Obama plan, when in fact, Cantor expressed support for only one part of it. Even Cantor’s support for improved background checks does not go as far as Obama wants.

The Claims About Manchin

The NAGR ad targeting Manchin claims that the West Virginia Democrat “is now the Senate’s loudest voice for Obama’s gun control.”

Like the other ads, the one against Manchin claims he is “beating the drum to herd gun owners into a federal registration system, to let Washington bureaucrats strip gun rights from veterans and other Americans without trial if they seek mental health counseling, to deny law-abiding West Virginians the right to buy, sell or even trade a gun without federal approval, to once again blame honest gun owners for the actions of criminals.”

The ad features a headline from the MSNBC “Morning Joe” show that states, “NRA-endorsed Senator calls for assault weapons ban.” But Manchin didn’t quite say that on the show. In the immediate aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., shooting, Manchin — who got an A rating from the NRA last year — said the shooting had “changed America,” and he indicated a desire to have a conversation about assault weapons. “Anyone saying they don’t want to talk and sit down and have that type of discussion is wrong,” he said.

“I’m a proud outdoorsman and huntsman, like many Americans, and I like shooting, but this doesn’t make sense,” Manchin added. “I don’t know anyone in the sporting and hunting arena who goes out with an assault rifle; I don’t know anyone who needs 30 rounds in the clip to go hunting.” That may sound like an argument in favor of an assault weapons ban, but in the end, all he committed himself to was a conversation about such a bill. He said more than once, “Everything has to be on the table.”

The ad also claims that “when asked if he’d go so far as to ban guns, tax ammunition or limit magazines, Joe Manchin said, quote, ‘I can’t say yes or no.’ ”

Here’s the fuller context of Manchin’s comments to the West Virginia Metro News radio program:

Metro News, Dec. 19, 2012: “I’m not supporting a ban on anything. I’m supporting a conversation on everything,” Senator Manchin said.

“I can’t say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to any of the things because all I’ve asked for, I want the NRA to tell me why we have any weapon you might want. Is there any grounds or any changes or anything they would like to look at? I don’t know. I can’t even get a conversation to have responsible people at the table to finally come out with a conclusion.”

But by February of this year, Manchin had made clear that he did not support an assault weapons ban.

“I do not support an assault weapon ban because the definition of assault weapon is still hard to come by,” Manchin said on MSNBC. “So I am not going to comment on people’s legislation. I do not support that approach right now.”

Meanwhile, Manchin says he is working on a bipartisan bill that would expand background checks to gun shows, online sales and individual transfers — but would include exceptions, such as for those handing down a firearm to a family member. That’s in line with the spirit of a part of Obama’s proposal, but it is inaccurate to call Manchin “the loudest voice for Obama’s gun control.” For one, Manchin specifically opposes Obama’s proposed assault weapons ban.

In a release posted on his congressional website on March 8, Manchin said he would not support any bill that includes a weapons ban, because “it is simply unconstitutional.” Manchin also wrote, “My bill will not create a national registry; in fact, it clearly makes illegal the establishment of any such registry.”

The ad is also incorrect in its claim that Manchin supports allowing “Washington bureaucrats [to] strip gun rights from veterans and other Americans without trial if they seek mental health counseling.” On his website, Manchin said he was working on a bipartisan bill that seeks to “make sure firearms do not end up in the hands of convicted criminals or people who are deemed mentally unstable by court ruling.”

Misleading Imagery

We’d like to make one other point about some misleading imagery in the NAGR ads.

The Rigell ad opens with a photo of Rigell at an Obama bill-signing event with these words on screen: “Scott Rigell wants to pass Obama’s gun control.” In fact, the photo comes from a noncontroversial November 2011 event in which Obama signed an executive order designating Fort Monroe as a National Monument.

And the opening of the Cantor ad features a photo of Cantor shaking Obama’s hand. That’s from a Nov. 30, 2010, bipartisan meeting with Obama after the Republicans won control of the House. It was the president who extended an olive branch to congressional Republican leaders after what Obama called a “shellacking.”

— Robert Farley