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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Opposition Overreach in Nevada

Here we go again: opposition researchers spinning sensational-sounding claims from flimsy facts. This time it’s a Democratic ad claiming GOP Rep. Joe Heck of Nevada voted “23 times” against banning terrorists from buying guns.

The fact is, there has not been a single up-or-down vote on such a ban in the House.

The ad is sponsored by the Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC that is spending millions to elect Democratic Senate candidates. Heck, a three-term congressman, is the Republican nominee to succeed Sen. Harry Reid, who is retiring. Heck is locked in a tight race against Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, the state’s former attorney general.

No Vote on Ban

None of the 23 votes cited by the ad would have banned anything, according to the PAC’s own detailed backup statement. All were procedural votes, of which 21 (in the PAC’s words) would have denied “an opportunity” to vote on a measure Democrats wanted to get to the floor if given the chance. That “no-fly, no-buy” legislation was aimed at preventing gun sales to anyone the government had placed on a list of suspected terrorists barred from commercial flights.

The PAC says other votes would have “blocked” similar proposals that Democrats attempted to offer as riders to other legislation.

As an example, one of the “blocked” measures was a motion to send back to committee a bill dealing with property rights along the Red River in Texas and Oklahoma. The motion would have instructed the committee to attach to the bill additional language that would have authorized the U.S. attorney general to block gun sales to anyone “appropriately suspected” of being a terrorist.

When the Democratic motion was ruled out of order, the sponsor appealed, a Republican moved to table (kill) the appeal, and the vote was 246 to 182 against the appeal.  Like all the other votes cited, it was nearly a straight party-line vote. In this case, two Democrats sided with 244 Republicans.

Polls show that the “no fly, no buy” legislation is politically popular, which of course is why the Senate Majority PAC is eager to advertise that Heck is opposed to it.

Civil-Rights Concerns

But the idea raises civil-rights concerns. The House measure favored by Democrats would allow the U.S. attorney general to block the sale of a firearm to anyone “appropriately suspected” of being a terrorist, without having to state the basis of that suspicion or present any evidence to a court. The measure does not define what “appropriately” is supposed to mean.

Anyone denied a weapon would have 60 days to appeal to the courts, but even then the government could provide “summaries or redacted versions of documents” to support its case if the attorney general determines that a full recital of evidence would “likely compromise national security.”

The liberal American Civil Liberties Union opposes banning a sale based on mere official suspicion. The ACLU has called the no-fly list “error-prone and unreliable because it uses vague and overbroad criteria and secret evidence to place individuals on blacklists without a meaningful process to correct government error and clear their names.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan has made clear that he won’t allow the measure on the floor for a vote while the Republicans control the House.

And it’s fair to say Heck would probably oppose such a measure if it ever did reach the floor; a spokesman told us Heck considers the measure “flawed.”

The Senate Majority PAC ad would be correct to say that Heck is part of a GOP majority that consistently backed its leadership’s refusal to consider the proposal Democrats favor. But it’s nonsense to claim that he voted 23 times against a proposed ban that never came up for a vote at all.