Fact Check: The Gun Registry Red Herring

Why does Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association, claim that Obama wants a national federal registry for guns?

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A customer shops for a gun at Freddie Bear Sports sporting goods store in Tinley Park, Ill., Jan. 19, 2013.

One week after the White House launched a new debate over guns in America, the discussion is already running off the rails. Not only do the two sides disagree on the proper regulation of guns, they also disagree on what they are disagreeing over.

Consider the following passage from Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA, who spoke Tuesday in response to President Obama’s inaugural address.

Obama wants you to believe that putting the federal government in the middle of every firearm transaction — except those between criminals — will somehow make us safer. That means forcing law-abiding people to fork over excessive fees to exercise their rights. Forcing parents to fill out forms to leave a family heirloom to a loved one — standing in line and filling out a bunch of bureaucratic paperwork, just so a grandfather can give a grandson a Christmas gift. He wants to put every private, personal transaction under the thumb of the federal government, and he wants to keep all those names in a massive federal registry. There are only two reasons for that federal list of gun owners —to tax them or take them.

Obama has not proposed a federal gun registry, which is currently barred under federal law. But LaPierre’s words–part fact, part falsehood, part paranoia–require careful parsing.

First the background: On January 16, Obama proposed a number of new gun control measures, including a new requirement “to require background checks for all firearm sales, with limited, common-sense exceptions for cases like certain transfers between family members and temporary transfers for hunting and sporting purposes.” The existing background check system requires the buyers of guns from licensed dealers to have their identities checked against an FBI database, called the NICS, to make sure they are neither felons nor mentally unfit under federal law. No records of buyer names or identities are retained. Under the White House proposal, all gun sales, including flea market, gun show and private sale would have to include a NICS check.

But the White House has clearly said Obama wants to carve out an exception for “cases like certain transfers between family members.” Though the specifics have yet to be unveiled, the Christmas gift from grandpa to grandson that LaPierre describes is unlikely to require a background check for the grandson.

So why does LaPierre claim that Obama wants a national federal registry for guns?

A spokesman for the NRA points me to comments that Obama made as a state senator in 2001, in an interview with the Chicago Defender. “Too many of these guns end up in the hands of criminals even though they were originally purchased by people who did not have a felony,” Obama said then. “I’ll continue to be in favor of handgun law registration requirements and licensing requirements for training.”

There is no record that Obama ever proposed such a registry on the federal level. In fact, during his first national campaign in January of 2008, Obama was asked about a federal firearm registry during a debate, and he basically ruled it out.

Question: Senator Obama, when you were in the state senate, you talked about licensing and registering gun owners. Would you do that as president?

Obama: I don’t think that we can get that done. But what I do think we can do is to provide just some common-sense enforcement.

The day after the President’s gun control proposal was released this month, the NRA’s lobbying wing posted a fact sheet about private gun sales and registration on its website. The fact sheet did not claim that Obama had proposed a federal firearm registry. But it did include this passage:

Is it reasonable to conclude that gun control supporters believe that subjecting all firearm sales to NICS is a necessary step in the direction of gun registration? And, if so, that they see registration as a prerequisite to the confiscation or some or all guns?

In 1976, the chairman of the National Council to Control Handguns—later renamed Handgun Control, Inc. and now known as the Brady Campaign—said: “The first problem is to slow down the increasing number of handguns being produced and sold in this country. The second problem is to get handguns registered. And the final problem is to make the possession of all handguns and all handgun ammunition—except for the military, policemen, licensed security guards, licensed sporting clubs, and licensed gun collectors—totally illegal.”

In short, the NRA is making a slippery slope argument: If you allow the existing background check system to be expanded to private gun sales, then you are nearing a point where all gun owners could be registered, and all guns could be confiscated. Indeed some members of the Senate, most notably California‘s Dianne Feinstein, have sought to create registration systems for gun owners, though these plans have not been endorsed by Obama. The only problem is that LaPierre didn’t make a slippery slope argument on Tuesday. Instead he said the President, “wants to keep all those names in a massive federal registry,” a sentence that has nothing to do with the President’s proposals, but drives at the heart of fears among gun owners.

This sort of deception is common in national politics. Obama won reelection in part by falsely claiming that Mitt Romney wanted to outlaw abortion even in cases of rape and incest, even though Romney repeatedly said he supported allowing abortion in cases of rape and incest. But frequency does not make deception any less abhorrent.

One interesting side note: There is actually common ground between the NRA and the White House on the issue of expanding background checks. When I talked to NRA President David Keene about the possibility of expanding background checks to unlicensed dealers at gun shows, he was open to the possibility. According to the most recent study by the National Institute of Justice, about 4% of gun purchases in 1993 and 1994 came through gun shows and flea markets. Another 17% of guns were acquired from members of the family, and 12% came from friends or acquaintances.   So requiring background checks at gun shows could be a starting point for compromise, but it would only affect a sliver of gun sales.

The White House has not yet spelled out how the friend-to-friend gun sale background checks would be handled, but has suggested that licensed dealers can act as middlemen. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms plans to send a letter to firearms dealers giving them guidance on the best practices for facilitating sales between two other parties.