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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

NRA’s Ominous But Misleading Appeal

The National Rifle Association employs images in a series of TV ads of an intruder breaking into the home of a mother home alone with her baby to make the case that several Democratic candidates have “voted to take away your gun rights.” But the implication of the jarring imagery — that the legislators would prevent the woman from defending herself — goes far beyond the facts.

Music in the ad sets an ominous tone as a woman in a bathrobe checks a baby crib in a darkened house before getting a text message – presumably from the spouse – saying they have “Landed. Miami.” She texts back, “Love You. Good night.” Then, a shadowy figure passes by a window before violently breaking through the front door.

“It happens like that,” the female narrator says. “The police can’t get there in time. How you defend yourself is up to you. It’s your choice.”

With images of the home now bathed in flashing police lights and cordoned off by crime tape, the narrator in a version of the ad attacking Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu continues, “But Mary Landrieu voted to take away your gun rights. Vote like your safety depends on it. Defend your freedom. Defeat Mary Landrieu.”

Similar ads target Colorado Sen. Mark Udall and Florida gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist.

The implication of the ad’s imagery is unmistakable: the targets of the ad have voted or supported policies that might prevent homeowners from being able to protect themselves against a violent intruder. But the NRA has to stretch the legislators’ records to the breaking point to make that connection.

First, and most importantly, none of the three politicians targeted in the ads is against people owning a gun or using it for self-defense in their homes. In its backup material, the NRA makes a more nuanced argument that the politicians have — in various ways — either voted for or expressed support for legislation that would limit the rights of law-abiding gun owners. It cites support for legislation that sought to expand background checks, or to limit assault weapons or large capacity magazines, or because they voted for the confirmation of Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor or Elena Kagan — both of whom the NRA views as hostile to gun rights.

The NRA’s Case Against Landrieu

Let’s start with the ad targeting Landrieu, as it has the weakest backing.

There are three legs to the NRA’s case that “Mary Landrieu voted to take away your gun rights” — and none of them hold any weight with regard to the implied claim that Landrieu would limit the ability of the woman in the ad to defend herself with a gun against an intruder.

The first is Landrieu’s vote for the Manchin-Toomey amendment for expanded background checks. The amendment, created by Sens. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, and Pat Toomey, a Republican, in the wake of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, would have expanded background checks to private sales by unlicensed individuals at gun shows and over the Internet.

In a vote of 54 to 46, the Manchin-Toomey amendment failed to garner the 60 votes needed to move forward — despite Landrieu’s support.

So how exactly would that amendment have prevented a woman from having a gun in her home to protect herself from an intruder?

Our fact-checking colleague at the Washington Post, Glenn Kessler, knocked down an unfounded hypothetical situation posed by the NRA — that the law would have prevented a woman threatened by a stalker,  who lives in a remote area far from gun stores, from making the quick purchase of a shotgun from a cousin’s neighbor. But even in that narrow situation, Kessler noted  the law would not have stood in the way of such a purchase.

NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam told us the vote on the Manchin-Toomey amendment “was considered a gun control vote” and that it would have “diminished 2nd Amendment rights.”

Besides, Arulanandam said, that vote was “in addition to other anti-gun votes she has cast.”

The NRA also pointed to Landrieu’s votes to confirm Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court — both of whom the NRA contends have been hostile to gun owners’ rights, based on positions they took in prior cases. We asked Arulanandam how those votes could have been a deal-breaker for the NRA given that Republican Sens.  Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina both voted for Sotomayor’s confirmation; and Graham voted for Kagan’s as well. In September, the NRA endorsed the re-election bids of both Alexander and Graham.

Arulanandam said people need to consider the totality of Landrieu’s record on gun control. But the only other votes cited by the NRA were ones Landrieu cast in 1999 and 2004 for amendments to close the so-called “gun show loophole” by requiring background checks on firearm transactions at gun shows. Expanded background checks “make it more difficult for law-abiding citizens to obtain a firearm,” Arulanandam said.

“As the ad said, Mary Landrieu votes to take away your gun rights,” Arulanandam insisted.

But the ad does more than that. It shows frightening images of an intruder breaking into a mother’s home at night. We’re not going to wade into the debate about the inconvenience of background checks at gun shows, but it’s a long stretch from there to the implication that Landrieu would prevent the woman in the ad — and anyone else like her –from obtaining a gun for self-defense.

Landrieu’s campaign notes that Landrieu has co-sponsored and voted for legislation to allow people with permits to carry concealed weapons in states other than their own; has repeatedly opposed a ban on assault weapons and high capacity ammunition clips; and that she voted to prevent the seizure of firearms during a state of emergency. And perhaps most germane to the NRA ad, Landrieu praised a decision by the Supreme Court to repeal a ban on carrying handguns in Washington D.C.; and voted in 2009 to “restore Second Amendment rights in the District of Columbia” and to repeal its ban on semi-automatic weapons. In other words, Landrieu has been an advocate for people like those featured in the NRA ad being able to keep a firearm in their home for protection.

Udall, Crist & Gun Rights

In its backup material for the claim that Udall “voted to take away your gun rights,” the NRA again cites votes for the Manchin-Toomey amendment and votes to confirm Sotomayor and Kagan to the Supreme Court.

The Udall campaign noted that in Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing, the Colorado senator specifically asked her views on the 2nd Amendment’s right to bear arms. According to an Associated Press account at the time, Sotomayor “told Udall she would follow a 2008 Supreme Court ruling that affirmed Americans’ right to own guns for self-defense.”

But in addition to those votes, the NRA cites Udall’s vote in 2013 to regulate large capacity ammunition feeding devices. The proposed amendment failed 46-54.

The NRA’s Arulanandam says law-abiding people ought to be able to possess the “firearms they feel comfortable with,” including those with large-capacity ammunition feeding devices.

“People have to be prepared for the worst and plan for the worst,” Arulanandam said. “What if there is more than one attacker? … Our position is that law-abiding people should be able to have the upper hand in situations like these.”

On the same day as the Manchin-Toomey vote and the vote to regulate large capacity ammunition feeding devices, Udall also voted against an assault weapons ban; and in favor of cross-state reciprocity for the carrying of concealed firearms.

The Udall campaign issued a statement to us, via e-mail, stating that “the implication that he [Udall] would prevent a responsible gun owner from purchasing a gun to protect herself is completely preposterous.”

The NRA backup for the ad about Crist, the Florida gubernatorial candidate, refers to an article in the Tampa Bay Times in 2012. In that article, Crist — who was reliably pro-gun rights when he served as a Republican Florida governor — said that in light of the “wake-up call” from the Newtown shooting, he now supported an assault weapons ban, a size limit on ammunition clips and tougher background checks.

“We need to have some restrictions, that’s pretty obvious to most people,” Crist told the Tampa Bay Times. “What do you need a 30-clip magazine for? Not to go hunting deer. I can tell you that because I hunt deer.”

There is enough in the article to make a case that Crist supports legislation that would infringe on your gun rights, but does this mean he is “opposed” to your gun rights? Even the Supreme Court has said that Congress has the right to impose reasonable restrictions on gun rights.  The argument then becomes what is a reasonable restriction.

But as with all three ads, the comment about Crist needs to be considered in the totality of the ad’s imagery.

It’s one thing for the NRA to make the argument, in the case of Udall, that he would limit this woman’s ability to  use large ammunition clips; or in the case of Crist, that she might not be able to use an assault weapon; or in the case of  Landrieu, that the woman might have to pass a background check if she had sought to buy a firearm at a gun show. But the imagery of the ad goes well beyond any of those more narrow issues.

To be clear, none of the three — Landrieu, Udall or Crist — opposes the right of law-abiding Americans to own a handgun, or to use that gun to defend themselves against a home intruder.

We should note that there is also a version of the NRA ad, using the same imagery, supporting NRA-endorsed Republicans — including Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Senate candidate Tom Cotton of Arkansas. Those ads say the Republicans have “protected your right to self-defense.” (You can view all of the ads here). To that, we would add that the record shows their Democratic opponents, Alison Lundergan Grimes and Sen. Mark Pryor, respectively, have also supported Americans’ right to own a gun and to use it in self-defense against an intruder in their home.

— Robert Farley