Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler ruled that a true statement by President Obama on how guns are sold was inaccurate because it was “confusing,” just weeks after writing that an unprovable claim about mass shootings made by GOP hopeful Marco Rubio was true.
Kessler's recent fact check of Obama is his latest botched article on the issue of gun violence.
On January 5, Obama announced during a speech from the White House that his administration is taking executive action to address gun violence in light of Congress' inaction following several high-profile mass shootings.
A large share of media coverage on Obama's move focused on the president's plan to expand background checks by clarifying what it means to be “engaged in the business” of selling firearms, although the plan also includes provisions addressing effective enforcement of existing gun laws, funding for mental health treatment, and developing gun safety technology.
During his remarks, Obama said, “The problem is some gun sellers have been operating under a different set of rules. A violent felon can buy the exact same weapon over the Internet with no background check, no questions asked.” Kessler purported to fact check this statement in a January 6 article.
What Obama said is factually accurate. There are two sets of rules for people who sell guns. People who are “engaged in the business” of selling firearms must obtain a license and perform background checks on customers, while people who claim that they are not “engaged in the business” do not need a license or to run checks. This discrepancy is what is known as the “private sale loophole” or “gun show loophole.”
Obama's “engaged in the business” executive action clarifies the law on what it means to be a gun dealer and requires people who are engaged in high-volume sales or engaging in commercial enterprises to obtain a Federal Firearms License and run background checks on customers.
Obama's second statement is also true. Due to the existence of the “private sales loophole,” a convicted felon could purchase a firearm without a background check through ArmsList.com or several other websites that allow private transactions.
Taken together, the statement is true as a whole. Gun sellers operate under two sets of rules, and as a consequence someone with a felony conviction can buy a firearm online without a background check from a so-called “private seller” who says he or she is not “engaged in the business” of selling firearms.
Kessler, however, awarded Obama “two Pinocchios” for his statement, claiming that Obama had used “slippery” or “confusing” language while purporting that “many readers” interpreted Obama's remark to mean that the president claimed that on the Internet “it legally permitted violent felons to obtain guns” -- a bizarre interpretation of the plain meaning of Obama's remark. (According to Kessler's rating scale, a “two Pinnochios” claim involves “Significant omissions and/or exaggerations.” )
Kessler was only able to reach his conclusion by misrepresenting what Obama said, writing, “Obama erred in saying the rules are different for Internet sellers. They face the same rules as other sellers -- rules that the administration now says it will enforce better.” Obama actually referred to “some gun sellers,” not just “Internet sellers” in his statement, before using a felon buying a gun online without a background check as an example of how the two different sets of rules for “some gun sellers” work in the online context.
Kessler's purported fact check of Obama stands in stark contrast to a December 10 fact check of GOP presidential contender Rubio's claim that, “None of the major shootings that have occurred in this country over the last few months or years that have outraged us, would gun laws have prevented them.”
In his article, Kessler wrote that he was initially skeptical of Rubio's claim but in the end awarded it “a rare Geppetto Checkmark,” concluding that the claim “stands up to scrutiny.”
But there is no way to actually verify whether or not stronger gun laws could have prevented recent public mass shootings unless one possessed the ability to accurately project an alternate history where the stronger gun law was in place at the time of the mass shooting plot. (And how do you count the mass shootings that did not occur because the gunman wasn't able to get a firearm?) Kessler -- along with Rubio and other GOP presidential candidates -- is certainly entitled to the opinion that stronger gun laws do not prevent dangerous people from accessing firearms, but there is no factual basis for this opinion. In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite.
As a September 2015 article in online magazine The Trace explained while summarizing academic research on the topic: “criminals routinely respond to incentives, and policies such as background checks and permit-to-purchase requirements demonstrably save lives by reducing criminal access to firearms.” While comprehensive gun laws would not stop every would-be mass shooter, the evidence suggests that strong gun laws meaningfully raise opportunity costs for dangerous people to obtain firearms.
In addition to his flawed premise, Kessler's accounts of mass shootings he used as examples to legitimize Rubio's claim do not stand up to scrutiny, most notably his treatment of the June 2015 mass shooting at a historically African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina.
In purporting to prove that no gun law could have prevented the shooting, Kessler wrote that “some analysts believe [Charleston gunman Dylann] Roof actually would have passed the background check if it had been done correctly.” Kessler's sourcing for that claim was highly suspect. Any analyst making that claim would be in disagreement with the FBI, the agency responsible for administering the national background check system, which determines whether or not someone should have passed a check.
In July 2015, the FBI released a statement revealing that Roof was legally prohibited from purchasing a gun because of a pending drug charge. But due to a loophole in federal law, Roof's sale proceeded because an examiner at the National Instant Criminal Background Check System was unable to locate Roof's prohibiting record within three business days, allowing the gun dealer to go forward with the sale without a completed background check. Democrats in the House and Senate introduced legislation that proposes to give the FBI more time to process background checks to prevent this scenario from occurring in the future.
Apparently made aware of the FBI's actual view of the sale to Roof, Kessler added the following update to this post (while also failing to delete his baseless suggestion that Roof may have been a legal gun purchaser):
In a statement after this fact check was first published, the FBI said Roof would have been denied a gun based on an “inference of current use.”
Kessler's suggestion that the FBI said Roof would have been prohibited only after his fact check was published is false; it occurred months earlier in July 2015. And the mere fact that Kessler had to make a significant revision to his analysis -- one that undermined a central piece of evidence cited to defend Rubio's claim -- arguably debunks the entire premise of giving Rubio a “Gepetto checkmark.” (Kessler never mentioned the legislation introduced to prevent similar future occurrences.)
Kessler also failed to mention the 2014 mass shooting in Isla Vista, California, at all in his fact check. Following that tragedy, California signed into law legislation to specifically address the circumstances of the shooting. Before the shooting was carried out, the family of gunman Elliot Rodger expressed concern to law enforcement authorities that Rodger was experiencing a mental health crisis, but no legal mechanism existed to remove his firearms at the time. The responsive law, known as a “gun violence restraining order,” allows family members or law enforcement personnel to petition a judge for the temporary removal of firearms from individuals who pose a danger to themselves or others. The “gun violence restraining order” law -- which has now been introduced on the federal level -- has applicability to a number of other recent mass shootings where family members or law enforcement knew that someone posed a danger, but lacked a mechanism to remove firearms from that person's possession.
Kessler's fact check of Obama's statement about online gun sales is his latest in a series of suspect articles on the issue of gun violence. In October, Kessler awarded Obama “two Pinnochios” because Obama included gun suicides within his use of the term “gun deaths” - echoing a common right-wing talking point that gun suicides should not be included in the “gun death” total.