Yesterday, once again, the Internet was aflutter with the slippery words of Bill Clinton. “A great democracy,” the former president claimed, “does not make it harder to vote than to buy an assault weapon.” This is vintage stuff from Slick Willy: It contains just about enough truth to seem credible while leaving a distinct and outsized — and thoroughly misleading — impression upon the listeners, most of whom will never bother to check the facts.
In Salon today, Alex Seitz-Wald seizes on Clinton’s phrase with unalloyed joy. Clinton, he claims, not only delivered “one of the best lines of the day, but one of the best lines of the debate over voting rights.” I suppose if one is interested only in the political efficacy of what were extremely carefully chosen words, then this is a fair reaction. But, contra Seitz-Wald’s conclusion, what Clinton said is not “absolutely true.” In fact, one needs to add an awful lot of caveats to get even to the dizzy heights of “partially true.”
Seitz-Wald’s defense rests heavily on a familiar line of argument. “Under federal law,” he writes,
you can buy a gun through a private seller without even showing an ID. And assault weapons have been fair game since the ban on them expired in 2004.
Seitz-Wald then contrasts this with the peculiar claim that there are “zero states where you can vote without providing some kind of ID,” which he says is the result of “federal law.”
Those familiar with the law in both of these areas will presumably recognize how delicate the Clinton–Seitz-Wald proposition is. For a start, there really is no such thing as an “assault weapon.” As Reason’s Jacob Sullum has observed, “The distinguishing characteristics of ‘assault weapons’ are mainly cosmetic and have little or no functional significance in the context of mass shootings or ordinary gun crimes.” This, of course, is by design. Historically, successful attempts to ban certain types of firearms have featured two stages. First, in order to convince the public that action is needed, politicians show images of scary-looking weapons, insinuate that the topic at hand is machine guns, and avoid at all costs the fact that rifles of all types are used in fewer than 3 percent of all national crimes. Second, having been given carte blanche, legislators sit down and decide what an “assault weapon” is. This is the firearms equivalent of having to pass the bill to find out what’s in it, not to mention a legislative approach that is perfectly suited to someone like Bill Clinton, whose treatises on what the words “is,” “inhale,” and “sexual relations” mean are now the stuff of legend.
Given that he is discussing something that isn’t real, Clinton’s claim should really fall at this point. Nevertheless, for the sake of argument let’s adopt Seitz-Wald’s premises that there are such things as “assault weapons” and that they are legally available to purchase in 43 states. The next question, then, is: Are they really so easy to get hold of?
No, not really. Seitz-Wald’s defense of Clinton’s claim rests entirely upon the lack of regulation of private sales. Background checks are required for all firearms sold by licensed gun sellers (including at gun shows), for all firearms sold by gun stores, and for all firearms sold by vendors over the Internet. In other words, they are required when, like voting, the transaction is public. They are not required for non-commercial trades, which are mostly conducted between acquaintances, which cannot be conducted by anyone who makes a living making or selling guns, and which thus represent a tiny fraction of all firearms purchases (so-called assault weapons represent a fraction of those sales, too). Furthermore, that federal law does not require private sellers to conduct background checks is not the whole story. The states of California, Oregon, Colorado, Illinois, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Jersey most certainly do. It is true that if you’re really desperate to get hold of a firearm without an ID, in much of the country you can. But private sales are not the normal way one buys a gun, and, unlike voting, private sales do not represent public transactions. (Should the federal government require identification to be presented at private elections?) Clearly, Bill Clinton sought to leave the opposite impression.
What Clinton and Seitz-Wald are ultimately arguing is this: “Providing that you live in one of the states that have not banned ‘assault weapons’ and in which private sales are not covered by background checks and you choose not to purchase through a gun store or a licensed dealer, then, in what is currently seven, but may soon be thirteen, states, you may have to jump through fewer hoops to get hold of your firearm than you would to vote.”
This is not quite as catchy as the original, I grant you.