When Fact-Checkers Go Bad

Glenn Kessler wrote a “Fact Checker” column for the Washington Post about “three Democratic claims on assault weapons and guns.” It’s just about the biggest bullshit I’ve read on the internet this week—which is really saying something, considering the fact that Donald Trump continues to exist.

Kessler sifted through the 14-hour Democratic filibuster led by Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy on June 15th, applying fact-checks, in the form of a number-system of “Pinocchios,” to every claim. The number of Pinocchios is based on how true Kessler determines the claim to be—the higher the number of Pinocchios, supposedly, the more untrue the statement is.

If the three quotes Kessler highlights are the most questionable statements he can find in all 14 hours of the filibuster, the Democrats did a remarkable job of keeping their facts in line, because the issues that Kessler has found are most definitely in the “pedantic” category. Let’s look at them in order.

First, Kessler gives Murphy three Pinocchios for this statement: “What we know is that in states that have imposed those reasonable limitations, there are less gun crimes. There are less homicides.” What’s the problem? Apparently, “One would need to specifically determine whether certain laws had an effect, over time, on the gun-death rate in a state.” What’s wrong with the study that Murphy (and, earlier, President Obama) cited to make this claim? Turns out, according to Kessler, “most gun deaths — more than 60 percent in 2013 — are actually suicides.” (Emphasis mine.)

This claim has always chafed somewhere deep in my soul. The argument that people who commit suicide due to easy access to guns shouldn’t count in gun death totals is entirely heartless. Here’s the thing: Guns make it easy to kill, which means that guns make it easy to kill yourself. Without easy access to guns, a suicidal person might be delayed just long enough to change their mind, or for a friend to notice and reach out. Gun deaths from suicide are inextricable from gun death totals. They absolutely count. And so do the accidental deaths that are also included in gun death totals.

So if Murphy had specifically invoked suicides and/or accidents in his quote, presumably Kessler would have less of a problem with his statement. Noted. And I agree. In fact, I would love to see more politicians mention suicides by gun, because it would help destigmatize the issue. But for his cold-heartedness on this topic, I award Kessler four stinkers:

Next, Kessler cites Murphy’s claim that “AR-15-style weapons weren’t legal in the United States until 2004 after being banned for 10 years. It is not coincidental that there was a massive increase in mass shootings in this country after 2004.” He calls this statement “problematic,” saying that though assault weapons make up a full quarter of public mass shootings, the automatic weapon gun ban did “Not significantly” affect the number of mass shootings:

From 1976 to 1994, there were about 18 mass shootings per year. During the ban — 1995 to 2004 — there were about 19 incidents per year. After the ban, through 2011, the average went up to nearly 21.

I would argue that two or three less mass shootings a year would be a good thing, but what do I know? I’m not an expert. You know who does know an awful lot about guns and gun statistics, though? The blogger Mike the Gun Guy, who points out an error in Kessler’s methodology:

…the report used by Kessler defines a ‘mass shooting’ as any incident resulting in the death of four or more people, most of which happen to have been family-connected, domestic events. What in God’s name do such events have to do with gunning down 70 people in a movie theater, or 26 people in a public school, or 100 people in a club? Nothing. And guess what weapon accounted for almost 100 deaths at Aurora, Sandy Hook and Orlando? Furthermore, Kessler’s ‘evidence’ aggregates data beginning in 1976. Hey schmuck, did it ever occur to you that AR-15 rifles weren’t even sold on the commercial market until 1980 and didn’t become popular until the 1990s?

(Mike the Gun Guy, sweetly, apologizes to his readers for not being “civil and respectful” in this paragraph, but he says “shabby journalism” like Kesssler’s pushes him past his breaking point.) For his obfuscation of useful information, I’m giving Kessler three stinkers:

Kessler’s final argument is perhaps the most frustrating, because it’s so unbearably petty. He quotes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who quotes an “al-Qaeda spokesman” as saying “America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms. You can go down to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle, without a background check, and most likely without having to show an identification card. So what are you waiting for?”

“Actually,” Kessler responds, “you can’t buy a ‘fully automatic assault rifle’ at a gun show. The al-Qaeda spokesman — and by extension Reid — are mixing up semiautomatic weapons and automatic weapons.” Kessler awards Reid two Pinocchios for this mix-up.

This is one of the absolute dumbest arguments in the gun responsibility debate. It’s akin to those jackasses who say things like, “actually, Frankenstein was the name of the scientist,” or “actually, it’s about ethics in gaming journalism,” or “actually, you forgot Poland.”

The point is not the technical term for the gun. That’s a rhetorical trick used by gun supporters to derail conversations about gun violence. The point is that some guns — like, for instance, AR-15s — make it easier to kill more people with very little effort.

If Reid or Murphy get the terminology inexact in a speech, it’s still very clear what they mean (and you can be sure that their legislation will be accurate.) They are talking about the kind of guns that get used in the record-breaking mass murders that we’ve seen so much of in the last decade or so.

For Kessler to round out a fact-check column on this minor point is asinine. But, you know, that’s the rule of threes: lists always seem fuller when you include three items as opposed to two.

For “actually”-ing a relevant point in a major American newspaper, I give Kessler a whopping five stinkers:

Congratulations to Kessler for winning the most stinkers ever awarded in the illustrious six-hour history of this proud tradition. Maybe he’ll take this achievement to heart the next time he decides to rank the truth of filibustering politicians on a puppet-head system.

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.