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FactChecking Biden’s CNN Town Hall

Former Vice President Joe Biden made a series of false and misleading statements on guns and crime during a CNN town hall in Charleston, South Carolina, on Feb. 26:

  • Biden inflated support among gun owners and National Rifle Association members to ban so-called assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Biden put the figure at 58%, though polls show support among gun owners below 50% and much less among NRA members.
  • He wrongly claimed that Sen. Bernie Sanders, after losing his initial bid for a House seat in 1998, “didn’t talk about the assault weapons ban” when he ran again and won two years later. Sanders expressed support for an assault weapons ban in both campaigns.
  • Biden said the 1994 crime bill that he sponsored “did not put more people in jail.” Experts say the bill often gets too much blame for a mass incarceration trend that began two decades prior to the bill passing, but they also say some of the provisions in the bill exacerbated the trend.
  • The Democratic presidential candidate misleadingly said the crime bill “had money for state prisons, which I opposed.” In fact, Biden did support $6 billion in funding for state prison construction, but not the $10 billion that was part of the final bill.
  • Biden downplayed the impact of the crime bill on incarceration by noting that “92 percent of every single prisoner is behind a bar in a state, a local, or a county prison, not in a federal prison.” But the federal law also affected state and local prisons as well.
  • He claimed that his 1994 crime bill “cut the violent crime rate in half.” Government and independent experts say the law had a modest effect, citing other factors such as improved economic conditions and changing demographics.
  • Biden misleadingly claimed the Obama administration “cut the prison rate by 38,000 people in the federal system.” According to Federal Bureau of Prisons data, there were about 9,500 fewer federal inmates in 2016, President Barack Obama’s final year in office, than there were in 2008, the year before Obama took office.
  • He repeated a claim that Sanders voted for a bill that prohibits gun manufacturers from being sued “at all.” The law generally shields gun makers from civil lawsuits resulting from the misuse of firearms or ammunition, but it does include some exceptions to allow for suits.
Percentage of Gun Owners Who Support Assault Weapons Ban

In the CNN town hall, Biden overstated support among gun owners or NRA members for an assault weapons ban.

Biden: The deal is that 58 percent of gun owners — of members of the NRA think that people should not be able to own an AR-15, not own an assault weapon, not have a 100 — a magazine, the thing you stick in the gun, that shoots as many bullets as you can, of a hundred rounds.

Biden’s campaign did not respond to our request for backup for his claim, but his figure doesn’t jibe with an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll from September. That poll showed that 47% of gun owners think Congress should ban the purchase of “high-capacity ammunition magazines,” while just 40% agreed that Congress should ban the sale of “semi-automatic assault guns,” such as the AK-47 or the AR-15. (See pages 9 and 10.)

A Pew Research Center poll in 2017 found 44% of gun owners supported banning high-capacity magazines, and 48% supported banning “assault-style weapons.” According to that 2017 survey, support for those policies was even lower among NRA members. That poll showed just 23% of NRA members favored banning high-capacity magazines, and 28% favored banning assault-style weapons.

Some polls have shown that Republicans support these proposals in the range that Biden claimed, but that’s not the same as gun owners or NRA members.

Sanders Talked About Support for Assault Weapons Ban

Biden, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sponsored and largely shepherded the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act into law in 1994. That bill, among other things, included an “assault weapons” ban, which prohibited the sale of semiautomatic firearms from 1994 to 2004.

In the CNN town hall, Biden mistakenly criticized Sanders for not speaking in support of the ban when he ran for office in 1990.

Biden: He [Sanders], in fact, said he voted against — he voted for the assault weapons ban when he, in fact, was running for mayor. He got defeated. The next time he ran, he didn’t talk about the assault weapons ban, he won.

Biden’s campaign did not respond to our inquiry about this, but Biden has clearly mixed up campaigns. Sanders never lost an election for mayor of Burlington, Vermont. He did, however, lose his first bid for a House of Representatives seat in 1988, a seat he then captured two years later. But more importantly, it’s not true that Sanders “didn’t talk about the assault weapons ban” in that second race.

As we said, Sanders lost his first bid for the House in 1988, falling in a tight race to Republican Peter Smith. During the Democratic debate in South Carolina on Feb. 25, Sanders speculated that his support for an assault weapons ban in that 1988 House race may have cost him the election.

“Thirty years ago, I likely lost a race for the one seat for Congress in Vermont because 30 years ago … I supported a ban on assault weapons,” Sander said.

But Biden is wrong to say that Sanders stayed mum on the assault weapons ban in a rematch of the race two years later.

In a 1990 debate hosted by the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, Sanders was asked whether he supported additional restrictions on firearms. “Yes,” Sanders said, noting that his response to a similar question cost him the endorsement of the federation two years prior, which in turn may have been “pivotal” in costing him the election.

Sanders, June 15, 1990: Two years ago, I went before the Vermont Sportsmen’s Federation and they asked me that same question. … I went before the sportsmen of Vermont and I said, ‘I have concerns about certain types of assault weapons that have nothing to do with hunting. I believe in hunting. I will not support any legislation which limits the rights of Vermont or any other hunters to practice what they enjoy. … I do have concerns about certain types of assault weapons … All that I can say is I told the sports people of Vermont what I believed before the election, and I’m going to say it again. I do believe that we need to ban certain types of assault weapons.

I have talked to police chiefs. I have talked to the police officers out on the street. I have read some of the literature all over this country. Police officers, police chiefs are concerned about certain types of weapons which are ending up in the hands of drug dealers and other criminals, and our police officers are getting out-gunned. So, the answer is, I would support something similar to a DeConcini-type bill which bans about nine very specific types of weapons and allows that decision to be made within the United States Congress and not the bureaucracy.

Sanders was talking about a measure sponsored by then-Democratic Sen. Dennis DeConcini of Arizona that sought a three-year ban on the manufacture and sale of certain semiautomatic assault weapons. The ban narrowly passed the Senate in 1990, but failed to advance in the House.

Did 1994 Crime Bill ‘Put More People in Jail’?

The 1994 crime bill that Biden sponsored, and then-President Bill Clinton signed into law, included an assault weapons ban. It received bipartisan support at the time, but it has since been criticized for some of its provisions, such as mandatory minimum sentencing, and its impact on mass incarceration.

Asked to defend the 1994 crime bill that he sponsored, Biden contended that the law “did not put more people in jail, like it’s argued.”

As we have written, critics often lay too much blame on the 1994 crime bill for the mass incarceration trend in the U.S. that has hit the black community particularly hard. That was a trend that started two decades prior to the sweeping crime bill in 1994. However, experts told us the law exacerbated the trend.

For example, the bill included a federal “three-strikes” provision, which required mandatory life imprisonment without possibility of parole for those who commit federal violent felonies if they had two or more previous convictions for violent felonies or drug trafficking crimes.

In a speech at an NAACP convention in Philadelphia in July 2015, Bill Clinton acknowledged that tougher incarceration provisions in the bill were a mistake. “I signed a bill that made the problem worse,” Clinton said. “And I want to admit it.”

Biden said in the town hall that he opposed the three-strikes provision, which he said was proposed by Clinton. As we wrote last year, there’s evidence supporting Biden’s contention that he didn’t back the final legislation’s three-strikes provision, but he did vote in favor of one version, a Republican amendment that was added to the Senate legislation. Biden is on record at the time as saying he supported a three-strikes provision for “serious [violent] felonies against a person,” but he was against including nonviolent offenses and expressed concern that minor crimes could get swept up in the measure.

Biden said the crime bill “had things in it I didn’t like.” But he misleadingly went on to say, “It had money for state prisons, which I opposed.”

In fact, Biden did support $6 billion in funding for state prison construction, but not the $10 billion that was part of the final bill. His campaign last year told us the $4 billion difference is what Biden meant when he said he “didn’t support more money to build state prisons.”

In addition, Biden misleadingly deflected the effects of the bill by noting that “92 percent of every single prisoner is behind a bar in a state, a local, or a county prison, not in a federal prison. And the abuses that have taken place have been in the state prison system.” It’s true that the vast majority of prisoners are held in local, county and state prisons, and not in federal prisons. However, although the crime bill was a federal law, it also affected state and local prisons as well.

When Clinton apologized for the law in 2015, he acknowledged that while most people are in prison under state law, “the federal law set a trend,” with its three-strikes provision.

The bill also had a more direct impact on state prison populations. It included $8.7 billion for prison construction to states that passed truth-in-sentencing laws, which required those convicted of violent crimes serve at least 85% of their sentences. According to the Department of Justice, 27 states and the District of Columbia, by 1998, met the eligibility criteria for the truth-in-sentencing grants. Another 13 states adopted truth-in-sentencing for “certain offenders to serve a specific percent of their sentence,” the Justice Department said in a 1999 report on the provision.

So while it may go too far to blame the 1994 crime bill for mass incarceration, it did create incentives for states to build prisons and increase sentences, and thereby contributed to increased incarceration.

Crime Bill Did Not Cut Violent Crime in Half

Biden claimed that his 1994 crime bill “cut the violent crime rate in half.” The rate of violent crime has nearly halved since 1994, but there’s no support for Biden’s suggestion that his legislation is responsible for this dip.

As we wrote last year, when Biden made a similar claim, independent analyses of the federal law found that it had a modest effect on crime rates.

It’s true that the violent crime rate has been nearly cut in half — down 48% — from 1994 to 2018, according to FBI uniform crime reporting statistics. But experts cite other factors for the steep decline in violent crime rates. 

For instance, the Government Accountability Office in 2005 issued a report on the impact of one major program funded by the crime bill — the Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS. GAO estimated that the COPS program added the equivalent of 88,000 officers from 1994 through 2001.

Between 1993 and 2000, the overall crime rate declined by 26% — including a 32% decline in violent crime, the GAO report said. However, the independent government agency found that the COPS program had only a “modest” impact on crime.

“Factors other than COPS funds,” including “local economic conditions and state-level policy changes,” were responsible for “the majority of the decline in crime during this period,” GAO found.

“For example, between 1993 and 2000, the overall crime rate declined by 26 percent, and the 1.3 percent decline due to COPS, amounted to about 5 percent of the overall decline. Similarly, COPS contributed about 7 percent of the 32 percent decline in violent crime from 1993 to 2000,” the report said.

John Worrall, a professor of criminology at the University of Texas at Dallas, told us last year that there is no agreement among criminologists and economists on what caused the violent crime rate to decline by nearly 50% since 1994.

“Could be economic, demographic, a civilizing effect, possibly because of abortion or lead paint, tougher sentences, etc., etc.,” Worrall said in an email to us. “A dozen or more explanations have been offered and no one agrees.”

In 2016, Lauren-Brooke Eisen, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, and her colleague, Inimai M. Chettiar, wrote that the crime bill “likely helped … by putting more cops on the street, studies show.” But they noted that “[c]rime had already started declining before the bill passed.” Overall crime declined by 10% and violent crime by 5% from 1991 to 1994.

In addition to “smarter policing tactics, like the ones funded by the bill,” the Brennan Center experts cited factors such as “social and economic factors — like an aging population and decreased alcohol consumption” for the continued decline in crime rates after the bill became law.

Did Obama, Biden Cut Federal Prison Population by 38,000?

According to Biden, “when I became the president’s vice president, we cut the prison rate by 38,000 people in the federal system.” According to Federal Bureau of Prisons data, there were about 9,500 fewer federal inmates in 2016, Obama’s final year in office, than there were in 2008, the year before Obama took office.

Last year, before Biden had officially announced his candidacy, a Biden spokesman told us that the former vice president got the 38,000 figure from a Dec. 17, 2018, ACLU letter, which measured from a high-point figure in 2013, when there were 219,298 federal prisoners. But that fails to account for the fact that the number of federal prisoners rose in Obama’s first five years in office.

The number of inmates has continued to decline under President Donald Trump. As of Feb. 27, there were 175,135 federal inmates, a little over 17,000 fewer than in Obama’s last year in office and down 44,163 inmates, or 20%, from the high in 2013.

Lawsuits Against Gun Manufacturers

In the CNN town hall, Biden also repeated his claim from the Feb. 8 Democratic debate that Sanders voted for a bill that prohibits gun manufacturers from being sued “at all.”

Biden: The idea here is that what is the thing that motivates you to make your judgments? And the idea that he’s the only one up there who, in fact, in 2003, in fact, voted to give the gun manufacturers absolute license not to be sued at all. If I stood before you all tonight and said, I’ve got a great — as your presidential candidate, I promise you, I’m going to make sure you can never sue the drug companies. They put out 9 billion opioids. Well, you can’t sue them. You’re never going to be able to sue the tobacco companies. And in the meantime, we talk about what you do to make up for those things. I haven’t seen him. He has gone after every corporation in the world, which is — I don’t disagree on all of it with him, but he goes after every corporation in the world, but I’ve not seen him go after the gun manufacturers. And so here’s the deal. What are you going to do about it now?

Sanders voted in 2003 and 2005 in favor of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which protects licensed manufacturers, dealers, sellers of ammunition and firearms, as well as trade associations from civil lawsuits over the misuse of guns or ammunition. The bill became law in 2005.

However, as we have explained before, the bill includes six exceptions where civil suits may be granted, including cases in which a firearm seller acted with negligence, cases involving the transfer of a firearm with the knowledge that it would be used to commit a crime, and cases in which manufacturers and sellers marketed or sold a firearm in violation of state or federal law.

Biden was also wrong when he said this: “I’ve not seen him [Sanders] go after the gun manufacturers. And so here’s the deal. What are you going to do about it now?”

Sanders has, in fact, reversed course. He has expressed regret over his vote, saying, “I’ve cast thousands of votes, including bad votes. That was a bad vote.”

The Vermont senator cosponsored an unsuccessful bill in 2016 that sought to repeal the legislation.