reason contributor Dave Kopel calmly and thoroughly dissects FactCheck.org's critique of the NRA's anti-Obama ads, which I mentioned in my column this week but did not have the space to address in detail. As Kopel notes, FactCheck's main conclusion, that the NRA's ad campaign "distorts Obama's position on gun control beyond recognition," is way too strong. (John Lott notes that a co-author of the FactCheck critique, Brooks Jackson, went even further in an interview with Fox News, calling the NRA ads "one of the worst examples of lying" he had "ever seen.") While the NRA can be faulted for taking certain liberties—e.g., a flyer presenting inferences based on positions Obama has taken over the years as his "10 Point Plan to 'Change' the Second Amendment"—the specific claims in its TV spots are all documented. And the general thrust of its argument, that Obama reads the Second Amendment to allow almost every form of gun control under the sun, is hard to deny.
Granted, FactCheck is in a difficult position when it tries to assess someone's claim about what a candidate really believes, as opposed to what he's saying to get elected. That sort of argument can't be rated true or false in the same way as an assertion about a politician's experience or voting record. And the NRA did not go out of its way to help. According to FactCheck, the NRA's public affairs director "declined to speak to us except to say that the claims are based on Obama's voting record and statements he has made in the media."
But FactCheck was excessively credulous in accepting the Obama campaign's rhetoric at face value and insufficiently curious about the basis for the NRA's claims, some of which hinge on dueling interpretations of legislation. As Kopel shows, FactCheck repeatedly suggests that Obama's general statements of support for the Second Amendment somehow cancel out his specific positions in favor of gun control, all but one of which he has never repudiated. And while Obama claims he never favored banning handguns, the evidence, which includes not just a disputed 1996 candidate questionnaire but recent statements in support of local handgun bans, strongly suggests otherwise. The Democratic platform itself includes Obama's comment about "what works in Chicago"—i.e., a handgun ban.
Speaking of dueling legislative interpretations, Kopel addresses the NRA's claim that Obama has supported a ban on ammunition used for hunting. He notes that in 2005 the senator voted for an amendment prohibiting rifle ammunition "designed or marketed as having armor piercing capability." While manufacturers do not market their ammunition as useful in killing cops, Kopel notes that "almost all rifle ammunition used for hunting deer or larger animals will penetrate a bullet-resistant vest" and therefore could be viewed as "designed" for that purpose, notwithstanding assurances to the contrary from the bill's sponsors. Lott adds that another part of the amendment would have banned "ammunition that 'may be used in a handgun' and can penetrate the 'minimum,' type 1, level of body armor," which would cover rifle ammunition that also can be used in handguns. Furthermore, in 2003 Obama said he supported "banning the sale of ammunition for assault weapons." Lott notes that "the rifles banned under the so-called assault weapons ban used such standard ammunition as .223 and .308 caliber bullets, the same ammunition used commonly in hunting rifles." In this case, as in his quip about deer in bullet-proof vests, Obama seems to have conflated the "assault weapon" and "armor-piercing bullet" issues.