PolitiFact says gun prosecutions didn’t nosedive under President Obama

PF National2“Sessions said that Obama “has allowed, each year he’s been here, the prosecutions of gun cases to go down. .. [sic] They’ve declined every year since President Bush left office.” That’s true — but the data covers only the first two years of Obama’s term, and it didn’t nosedive under Obama since it was already a tiny percentage under Bush.”
—PolitiFact

 

Overview

PolitiFact’s illogical claim could pass for a whitewash of President Obama’s record on background check prosecutions.

The Facts

PolitiFact published a fact check of Rep. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) on April 16, 2013.  Sessions asserted that prosecutions related to failed background checks had gone down each year under President Obama. PF tu quoque defending ObamaPolitiFact justified its “Half True” ruling by pointing out that statistics only shed light on the first two years of the Obama administration and by showing the Bush administration also established a poor record of prosecuting failed background checks.

PolitiFact produced two sets of numbers in support of its analysis between Bush and Obama.  One set listed the number of prosecutions by year and agreed with a similar list produced by the Washington Post Fact Checker, Glenn Kessler.

PF gun prosecutions

PolitiFact’s numbers for prosecutions, as our graph shows, demonstrate an unmistakable decline in prosecutions under the Obama administration.

PolitiFact’s other set of numbers presented the prosecutions as a percentage of the number of failed background checks and differed slightly from Kessler’s findings.  Kessler consistently used one measure of failed background checks from the DOJ data while PolitiFact consistently used a different measure, also from the DOJ data.

PolitiFact’s conclusion contains the subject of our fact check (bold emphasis added):

 

Sessions said that Obama “has allowed, each year he’s been here, the prosecutions of gun cases to go down. .. [sic] They’ve declined every year since President Bush left office.” That’s true — but the data covers only the first two years of Obama’s term, and it didn’t nosedive under Obama since it was already a tiny percentage under Bush. Obama could order tougher prosecution of gun-denial cases, but like his predecessors, he or his appointees have determined that other crimes are more urgent and take precedence. On balance, we rate the claim Half True.

 

Measuring a nosedive requires a baseline.

 Analyzing the Rhetoric

We note above that measuring a nosedive requires some sort of baseline to justify the judgment.  PolitiFact conspicuously fails to explicitly identify any baseline other than a string of years where the Bush administration prosecuted over 100 cases.  By that baseline, however, a drop-off obviously occurs with the Obama administration.

We can construct two kinds of baselines.  One baseline uses the available history to build a trend line for prosecutions.  The other method requires us to develop and justify an ideal percentage of prosecutions from the total number of failed background checks.  The latter method, however, does not give us a baseline from which to measure a nosedive in performance.

Both PolitiFact and Glenn Kessler came close to providing all the historical data for a baseline, especially Kessler.  The full system for firearm background checks started during the Bush administration, so any baseline from our first method must come from the Bush administration.  We located the number of prosecutions for each year dating from 2002, except for 2004.  In 2003, only 50 prosecutions took place under Bush.  The Obama administration owns the other two of the three lowest number of prosecutions, including the low of 44.

Prosecutions background checks 2002-2010

As for the second method of establishing a baseline, PolitiFact’s fact check gives us no evidence that it lifted a finger to determine the number of prosecutions that ought to have occurred.  The percentage of the total was low under Bush.  Percentage of DENI-referred NCIS background checksThe yearly average under Obama amounts to roughly 60 percent of the average under Bush dating from 2005.  The comparison of yearly percentages closely tracks the outline of the graph of the yearly totals.

For the measure PolitiFact used, the Obama administration’s percentage of prosecutions comes to 52 percent of the Bush percentage, on average.

The Inspector General’s 2004 report on Brady Act enforcement noted that the percentage of prosecutions is low because of the difficulty of obtaining convictions.

“It didn’t nosedive under Obama since it was already a tiny percentage under Bush.”

As explained above, we properly measure a “nosedive” in comparison to past performance.  The only measured performance for the prosecution of failed background checks dates from the Bush administration.  The size of the percentage under Bush does not matter with respect to measuring a “nosedive” except in comparing the Bush numbers to the Obama numbers. The comparison justifies calling the decline in prosecutions a “nosedive.”

PolitiFact’s reasoning makes no sense and approximates the pattern of the tu quoque (“you, also”) fallacy.

Summary

“It didn’t nosedive under Obama since it was already a tiny percentage under Bush.”

icon False FallacyIcon tu quoque

Background check prosecutions declined enough under Obama to count as a nosedive.  Excusing the decline based on already-low prosecution numbers under Bush amounts to a tu quoque fallacy.

 

References

Jacobson, Louis. “GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions Says Gun Prosecutions Have Declined under Barack Obama.” PolitiFact. Tampa Bay Times, 16 Apr. 2013. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Kessler, Glenn. “Ted Cruz’s Claim on Gun Background Check Prosecutions.” Washington Post. The Washington Post Company, 12 Apr. 2013. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Review of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Enforcement of Brady Act Violations Identified Through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.” Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Department of Justice. U.S. Department of Justice, July 2004. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Search Results: Brady Enforcement.” National Criminal Justice Reference Service. U.S. Department of Justice, n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

U.S.A. Department of Justice. Enforcement of the Brady Act, 2006. By Ronald J. Frandsen. Regional Justice Information Service, 22 Jan. 2008. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

U.S.A. Department of Justice. Enforcement of the Brady Act, 2007. By Ronald J. Frandsen. Regional Justice Information Service, May 2009. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

U.S.A. Department of Justice. Enforcement of the Brady Act, 2008. By Ronald J. Frandsen. Regional Justice Information Service, June 2010. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

U.S.A. Department of Justice. Enforcement of the Brady Act, 2009. By Ronald J. Frandsen. Regional Justice Information Service, Apr. 2011. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

U.S.A. Department of Justice. Enforcement of the Brady Act, 2010. By Ronald J. Frandsen. Regional Justice Information Service, Aug. 2012. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Publications & Products: Background Checks for Firearm Transfers.” Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). U.S. Department of Justice, n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Adams, Devon B., Michael Bowling, Ph.D., Matthew J. Hickman, Ph.D., and Gene Lauver. “Background Checks for Firearm Transfers, 2004.” Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). U.S. Department of Justice, 1 Oct. 2005. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Adams, Devon B., Michael Bowling, Ph.D., Matthew J. Hickman, Ph.D., and Gene Lauver. “Background Checks for Firearm Transfers, 2004.” Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). U.S. Department of Justice, 1 Oct. 2005. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Adams, Devon B., Michael Bowling, Ph.D., Matthew J. Hickman, Ph.D., and Gene Lauver. “Background Checks for Firearm Transfers, 2005.” Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). U.S. Department of Justice, 1 Nov. 2006. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Adams, Devon B., Michael Bowling, Ph.D., Matthew J. Hickman, Ph.D., and Gene Lauver. “Background Checks for Firearm Transfers, 2005.” Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). U.S. Department of Justice, 1 Nov. 2006. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Adams, Devon B., Michael J. Bowling, Ph.D., Gene Lauver, and Gerard F. Ramker. “Background Checks for Firearm Transfers, 2006.” Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). U.S. Department of Justice, 1 Mar. 2008. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Adams, Devon B., Michael J. Bowling, Ph.D., Gene Lauver, and Gerard F. Ramker. “Background Checks for Firearm Transfers, 2006.” Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). U.S. Department of Justice, 1 Mar. 2008. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Adams, Devon B., Michael J. Bowling, Ph.D., Gene Lauver, and Gerard F. Ramker. “Background Checks for Firearm Transfers, 2007.” Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). U.S. Department of Justice, 1 July 2008. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Adams, Devon B., Michael J. Bowling, Ph.D., Gene Lauver, and Gerard F. Ramker. “Background Checks for Firearm Transfers, 2007.” Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). U.S. Department of Justice, 1 July 2008. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Adams, Devon. “Background Checks for Firearm Transfers, 2008.” Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). U.S. Department of Justice, 4 Aug. 2009. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Adams, Devon. “Background Checks for Firearm Transfers, 2008.” Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). U.S. Department of Justice, 4 Aug. 2009. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Adams, Devon B., and Allina D. Boutilier. “Background Checks for Firearm Transfers, 2009.” Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). U.S. Department of Justice, 19 Oct. 2010. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Adams, Devon B., and Allina D. Boutilier. “Background Checks for Firearm Transfers, 2009.” Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). U.S. Department of Justice, 19 Oct. 2010. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Lee, Allina D., BLS, Ronald J. Frandsen, Gene A. Lauver, Dave Naglich, and REJIS. “Background Checks for Firearm Transfers, 2010.” Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). U.S. Department of Justice, 12 Feb. 2013. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Lee, Allina D., BLS, Ronald J. Frandsen, Gene A. Lauver, Dave Naglich, and REJIS. “Background Checks for Firearm Transfers, 2010.” Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). U.S. Department of Justice, 12 Feb. 2013. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

VerBruggen, Robert. “Gun Background Checks and Prosecutions.” National Review Online. National Review Online, 27 Feb. 2013. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

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