Media Credulously Repeat Sen. Ayotte's Claim To Have Voted For Background Checks

Mainstream media outlets are blindly repeating the claim by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) that she supported expanded background checks by voting for Republican legislation that would actually have weakened the background check system.

On April 17, Ayotte voted against the Manchin-Toomey amendment, a legislative proposal to expand background checks to sales at gun shows and over the Internet, facing political backlash as a result. Ayotte, however, co-sponsored and voted in favor of a replacement bill offered by Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) that purported to improve the background check system by increasing the number of mental health records in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

In fact, the Grassley-Cruz proposal would weaken the gun background check system by changing the way mental health records are reported, potentially invalidating mental health records that are currently in the system. Specifically, Section 103 would change current law by only creating a disqualifying background check record if an individual is designated as dangerously mentally ill by a court or other adjudicative body. Under present law, adjudications by all lawful authorities create a record that prohibits an individual from buying a firearm.

To the contrary, Manchin-Toomey would have increased the number of mental health records in NICS by offering states financial incentives and disincentives to include missing records in the system, in addition to expanding background checks

A number of media outlets have failed to report this distinction, instead giving the impression that Ayotte is correctly stating that she voted for an alternate proposal to improve the background check system. The Washington Post wrote, “Ayotte -- and the NRA ad -- point out that she voted for a separate GOP proposal that would have expanded the background check system by requiring states to provide more information on mentally ill people ineligible to own weapons.”

Politico similarly offered a credulous characterization of Grassley-Cruz, writing that, “the Granite Stater [Ayotte] backed an alternative measure written by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) that ignored gun shows and internet sales entirely, instead focusing on encouraging states to submit mental health information to the background check database.”

The National Rifle Association released an ad backing Ayotte, claiming that she voted in favor of background checks by supporting Grassley-Cruz. Covering this ad, The Hill credulously repeated its claims without investigating its veracity:

The ad goes on to highlight a series of Ayotte's votes that it characterizes as working to improve background checks, reform the mental health system and increase resources to prosecute criminals using guns.

Some media outlets put Ayotte's support of Grassley-Cruz and opposition to Manchin-Toomey in proper context. For example, The New York Daily News reported that, “The amendment Ayotte referenced, known as the Grassley-Cruz amendment, for the senators who co-wrote it, contained several Republican proposals, but beefed-up background checks were not among them.”