By Glenn Kessler
The Washington Post
— "There are almost too many schemes to list. But President Obama's worst center around . . . a thinly-veiled national gun registration scheme hidden under the guise of 'background checks' to ensure federal government minders gain every bureaucratic tool they need for full-scale confiscation. . . . It is almost hard to believe the sheer breadth and brazenness of this attempt to gut our Constitution."
— from an e-mail to supporters by Jesse Benton, campaign manager for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
There are a number of assertions about President Barack Obama's gun agenda in this e-mail that might be debatable, but this one about a "thinly-veiled national gun registration scheme" caught our eye. As our colleagues at FactCheck.org have noted, this is also a frequent assertion by the National Rifle Association.
But there is something especially unusual about a campaign aide to McConnell making this claim. Let's explore.
Obama's 15-page plan starts with a proposal for universal background checks, specifically ways to close potential loopholes.
As we noted previously, at least one claim in this section — that "nearly 40 percent of all gun sales are made by private sellers"_ is incorrect. But there is nothing in this section that appears to create a national gun registration scheme; it is aimed at extending the current Brady law rule on background checks to all firearm sales, "with limited, common-sense exceptions for cases like certain transfers between family members and temporary transfers for hunting and sporting purposes."
Indeed, current law specifically prohibits using the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to create a federal firearms registry — which, ironically, is a selling point for gun dealers.
Ohio Guns, a federally licensed gun seller that advertises on the Web, prominently quotes this fact in order to assure buyers. "This is not any type of firearm registration. In fact, the day after an approved NICS, your personal identifying information is destroyed by the FBI," the website says, citing an FBI document.
And why does the law say the records must be destroyed within 24 hours?
A conference report accompanying an appropriations bill passed on Nov. 14, 2011, contained this language: "Section 511 permanently prohibits funds from being used to implement a Federal user fee for background checks conducted pursuant to the Brady Handgun Control Act of 1993, and to implement a background check system that does not require and result in the destruction of certain information within 24 hours."
Note that the language says this is a "permanent" change.
Moreover, the conference report included these words in the section on expenses for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives: "That no funds appropriated herein or hereafter shall be available for salaries or administrative expenses in connection with consolidating or centralizing, within the Department of Justice, the records, or any portion thereof, of acquisition and disposition of firearms maintained by Federal firearms licensees."
This is pretty sweeping language. The law not only mandated the destruction of FBI records within 24 hours, but then it makes sure no one at ATF could even begin to think about such a registry while on the clock.
And who served on this conference committee? Mitch McConnell.
Not only that, he voted for the final bill, as well — one of only 17 Senate Republicans to do so. As House and Senate negotiators met, he also signed a letter concerning the firearms database prohibition, saying it should be made permanent. (Generally such limiting language in appropriations bills lasts only as long as the fiscal year.)
Gun-control foes have also suggested that the requirement that gun dealers retain Form 4473 — which contains information on guns that are sold — could be turned into some sort of registry. A dealer must keep the form on file for 20 years and surrender it to the FBI if the shop goes out of business. But this has long been a feature of the law and is unrelated to Obama's proposals.
So, what has Obama said about a national registry? As Time magazine has noted, Obama in 2008 was asked about the idea during a debate and appeared to rule it out. "I don't think that we can get that done," he said. "But what I do think we can do is to provide just some common-sense enforcement."
Benton declined to provide a comment for the record.
Benton's scare tactics do not pass muster. Foes of Obama's proposals are welcome to leap to all sorts of assumptions about the impact of proposed laws, but such assumptions must be grounded in facts.
Considering that McConnell was directly responsible for enacting legislation that greatly limits the ability of the federal government to create a federal registry, Benton's claim that Obama's proposal for universal background checks would lead to "full-scale confiscation" of guns is especially strange.
Creating such a registry, let alone confiscating guns, would require overturning a federal law that bears McConnell's fingerprints — something highly unlikely in a divided Congress.