A few days ago I was watching an interview reporter Jon Ralston conducted with public relations consultant Jennifer Crowe, a spokesperson for supporters of ballot Question One, which provides for background checks on some gun acquisitions that are not covered by current law. One comment by Crowe jumped out at me:
“If you go to buy a gun now from a licensed gun dealer at a gun store, you go through a background check. That’s been the law for over twenty years. However, if you go to a gun show, and you go to an unlicensed seller at a gun show or you connect with somebody online on one of these gun marketplace websites, no background check is required for that sale. And those private sales account for about 40 percent of the gun show market at this point.”
As soon as I heard the term “40 percent” I knew Crowe had a problem. That figure has been bandied about a lot. But it’s flawed. It’s based on a study for which data was collected in the early 1990s, mostly before the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act took effect. As a result, the conclusions of the study were based on outdated information. In 2012 Politifact, a fact-checking journalism entity, initially ranked the claim “mostly true” but after reviewing the evidence at the request of readers, it was changed to “half true.” The Washington Post gave it a similar ranking.
There were other problems with the study. There were 251 respondents to a survey used in it. That’s not terrible, but it does raise the margin of error. In addition, the data references not just purchases but also acquisitions, such as gifts.
Of course, once bad information gets into the public bloodstream, it takes time to get it out. It’s in clipping files, online, in memories. A lot of people are still using the figure – President Obama, Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine have cited it in the past year. It’s not malicious, though when the White House speechwriting team does it, it’s fair to fault the quality of research. Clinton’s operation apparently became aware of the problem, because her website now uses “20 to 40 percent,” which suggests a reluctance to let go of the bad info. That does deserve sharp criticism.
What really jolted me was what happened after Crowe’s comment. Instead of simply calling for a correction, a National Rifle Association spokesperson went to work with a sledgehammer.
The National Rifle Association’s spokesperson, Catherine Mortenson, wrote and sent out a news release that began, “In an interview with KTNV’s Jon Ralston that aired on August 11, Nevadans for Background Checks spokesperson Jennifer Crowe shamelessly peddled false claims about firearms that have been widely debunked for years.”
“Shamelessly peddled”? It’s not a drug dealer who is at issue here. “Shameless”? Does fealty to gun rights endow Mortenson with mind-reading capability?
Mortenson is one of those flacks who lead her clients into using extreme language that makes it difficult for opposing forces to work together when campaigns end and it’s time to govern. She has a history of overstatement and epitomizes the view that plagues our politics, that those with whom we disagree are unworthy of respect.
She once described legislation providing for research on gun safety and violence prevention as “unethical” and prejudged the outcome of the research (to be conducted by the Centers for Disease Control) before it had even been funded, much less begun.
Crowe is rooted in the state – she graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno, 21 years ago. This is a small state. Mortenson attacked a well-known figure who is respected by many on both sides of the ballot measure, esteem that stems from her years as a reporter treating the people she covered decently.
The attack on her by Mortenson undercuts the ability of opponents of Question One to make an issue of out-of-state support for the measure. If it’s okay for a flack for a Virginia-based lobby group to make nasty attacks on Nevada figures, then why is anti-Q1 leader Robert Uithoven going after “out-of-state gun control groups [who] spend whatever it takes to drown out the voices” of gun supporters?
But aside from political considerations, why not use moderate language not just because it is wise but because it is civilized?
Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.