The Hill Lets Gun Industry Trade Group Trash Opponents With False Background Check Claims

A profile of the gun industry's trade group, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), published by The Hill credulously adopted false claims from the NSSF to discount the work of gun safety groups in improving the national background check system for firearms sales.

In a February 3, 2015, lobbyist profile of NSSF senior vice president Larry Keane, The Hill reported that, “Perhaps the NSSF's most surprising safety effort -- at least, to gun control advocates -- is its campaign to improve background checks,” before describing an effort by NSSF to encourage states to submit more disqualifying records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), an FBI-administered database used by federally licensed firearm dealers to process background checks on customers.

NICS has stopped more than 2 million prohibited purchasers from buying firearms over the past two decades, but the records contained within the system are incomplete, often due to failures by states to submit disqualifying records to NICS.

While the NSSF's efforts in improving NICS are laudable, The Hill credulously quoted false claims from Keane that suggested gun safety groups have played no role in improving NICS. According to Keane, gun safety groups funded by prominent gun safety supporter and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg “don't actually do anything” to improve NICS while NSSF “put our money where our mouth is” :

All gun dealers are required to use the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to search for records that would make potential buyers ineligible to own a gun, such as those convicted of a crime. The system is notoriously unreliable, plagued by a lack of data and governed by a patchwork of state laws -- problems that all sides of the gun debate have long tried to fix.

Still, Keane argues that his organization is the only one with “boots on the ground.”

“People will talk about it, most notably the Bloomberg-funded groups, but they don't actually do anything,” he said. “We put our money where our mouth is.”

A basic examination of the history of legislative efforts to improve NICS shows that Keane's claim is entirely untrue. Missing records in NICS came under major scrutiny following the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting. The gunman in that incident passed a background check to purchase two firearms, even though he should have been flagged because of a disqualifying mental health record.

In a bi-partisan manner, Congress passed legislation called the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 that offered incentives for states to submit disqualifying records into NICS. In a 2008 letter, Bloomberg, writing on behalf of his gun safety group Mayors Against Illegal Guns (which later became part of Everytown for Gun Safety), called on Congress to fully fund the legislation, which President George W. Bush signed into law.

Bloomberg's gun safety efforts have repeatedly made an issue of missing NICS records and have issued regular reports on progress to add missing records to NICS.

A December 10, 2014, press release from Everytown applauded record funding to improve NICS authorized by Congress for Fiscal Year 2015: “Since Everytown published the first report highlighting the problem, total mental health records submitted by states have tripled.” The press release also thanked several members of Congress whose support “was critical during the budget negotiations” on funding for NICS. Center for American Progress, another prominent supporter of improving NICS, also celebrated the funding victory.

Reports posted on the Center for Responsive Politics OpenSecrets.org website indicate that Everytown has repeatedly lobbied Congress on legislation that seeks to increase the number of disqualifying records in NICS. 

Readers of The Hill's NSSF profile, however, were presented with the false impression that NSSF works to improve NICS while gun safety groups do not. Unlike the NSSF, gun safety groups typically support a comprehensive approach to improving the background check system, which involves improving NICS record keeping as well as closing a loophole in federal law that allows a substantial number of gun transfers to occur without a background check. Beyond Everytown, other groups that have worked to improve NICS record keeping include the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun ViolenceCoalition to Stop Gun Violence, and Americans for Responsible Solutions.

Largely relying on the claims of Keane himself, The Hill presented NSSF as “quieter” version of the National Rifle Association that since the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School “has doubled down on its safety programs, including efforts to improve the country's background check system.” Keane has previously used false information to make his group appear to be moderate and his opponents intemperate. While being quoted for a book on the fight over gun legislation following the Sandy Hook shooting, Keane attempted to paint the Obama Administration as inflexible by falsely stating that the gun industry was not invited to the White House to discuss gun issues; a claim disproven by an NSSF press release.

Despite its support for improving NICS record keeping, the NSSF's overall view on background checks on gun sales is far outside of the mainstream. NSSF opposed U.S. Senate legislation to expand background checks to private sales of firearms, a measure that is supported by the vast majority of the public.