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Fact check: NRA leader misspoke on number of gun laws, but does it matter?

Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, testifies during a hearing held by the Senate Judiciary committee about guns and violence on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 30, 2013.
By Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — “The fact is, we could dramatically cut crime in this country with guns and save lives all over this country if we would start enforcing the 9,000 federal laws we have on the books.”

— National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, testifying before Congress, Jan. 30

Many readers have asked us about this claim of 9,000 federal gun laws, which was later repeated by Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday” when LaPierre appeared on that program. When we checked with NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam for the sourcing, he said that LaPierre had misspoken.

“If anything, he understated the number of laws,” Arulanandam said, noting that the NRA generally refers to “20,000 laws.”

Indeed. A Nexis search found nearly 500 references in media reports, often by NRA officials or their allies, but also by the NRA’s foes. It is repeated in letters to the editors in newspapers big and small. The figure has stretched back almost five decades. There’s even this one:

“Consider the fact that we now have on the lawbooks of this nation over 20,000 laws governing the sale, distribution and use of firearms.”— Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., congressional hearings, 1965

Yep, you read that last one right: 1965. That’s three years before passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968, the sweeping measure that became law after the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Dingell quote was the earliest reference found by Brookings Institution researchers Jon Vernick and Lisa Hepburn when they first tried to untangle this factoid in 2002. The figure was repeated in a 1969 study, “Firearms and Violence in American Life,” which cited Dingell but noted that he did not provide a source when he testified. Dingell’s staff did not respond to a query about how Dingell came up with the figure.

Arulanandam referred us to three sources for the 20,000 figure: The 1983 book “Under the Gun,” by James D. Wright, Peter H. Rossi and Kathleen Daly; the Firearms Law Deskbook, by Stephen P. Halbrook; and a compilation of state firearms laws by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Wright noted that his book is 30 years old. He said the figure was “at best a reasoned guess, by no means a precise count.”

Halbrook said he made his reference simply to indicate that there are a lot of laws on the books. “The figure is hyperbole,” he said. “There is no way to count them all,” but the number is in “the sphere of ‘countless.’”

Arulanandam cited the ATF guide to state laws because it is 507 pages long and includes only laws relevant to dealers. “There are more than 3,000 counties in the U.S., most of which have nothing listed in the book. So if there are even a few ‘laws’ per page, and if even a sizable fraction of those counties have anything like a discharge law or a licensing requirement for gun stores, they will add up very quickly,” he said.

But these sorts of counting exercises may not be particularly relevant to the current debate. After all, not all laws are created equal.

Vernick said it is very difficult to add up the number of laws. He counted about 300 state laws as of 1999 but said it was hard to decide what should be considered a law.

Wright agreed. “Not sure that number is relevant to anything,” he said. “In the context of the times, it was a useful counter-point to the common argument that the U.S. is (was) virtually the only advanced society that exercises no controls over civilian gun ownership, acquisition and use. Not true then and not true now. The problem is not the lack of gun control laws but the lack of nationally uniform and effective laws.”

Alan Korwin, who co-wrote “Gun Laws of America” with Michael P. Anthony, has added up 271 federal gun statutes but says all of these numbers are fairly meaningless. He has written an essay on his website addressing the question of how many gun laws exist, and whether this is even the proper metric in the first place.

Korwin, who is highly skeptical of the need for new laws, believes the figure is a distraction. “A few small clues here and there . . . have led me to believe the 20,000 number was invented, or at best wildly guessed, probably by the gun-rights community, as a catch-all sound bite for the debate,” he wrote in his essay.

“The point is that there are — insert number here — laws on the books that address anything illegal that anyone can do with a firearm,” Arulanandam said. “Having that number of laws, plus one, isn’t going to make anyone safer. What will make everyone safer is if we enforce the laws that we have on the books now.”

By any reasonable measure, this is suspicious figure. Its origin is murky, and it is inconceivable that the same number of gun laws would exist now as some five decades ago.

Moreover, even experts who favor the NRA’s agenda have their doubts about the figure or its relevance. It may well be the case that there are “thousands” of laws, but what does that mean? What does counting statutes, or local regulations, say about the quality or effectiveness of those laws?

We don’t play gotcha here at The Fact Checker, so we accept that LaPierre misspoke when he said 9,000 federal laws rather than 20,000 laws across the nation. But that slip of the tongue actually points out the fuzzy nature of the claim.

Using the figure of 20,000 — or 9,000 — amounts to false precision on the part of anyone, friend or foe of the NRA.

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