"Senator, there needs to be a change in the culture of prosecution at the entire federal level. It's a national disgrace. 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 Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre, testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jan. 30, 2013
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.”
The Pinocchio Test
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.
This 20,000 figure appears to be an ancient guesstimate that has hardened over the decades into a constantly repeated, never-questioned talking point. It could be lower, or higher, depending on who’s counting what.
UPDATE: Anthony, and a number of other readers, asked why this merited Three Pinocchios. The Pinnochio rating is always the hardest part of the column and certainly is subject to debate.
In this case, the rating is based on the fact that the figure had been used for almost five decades, without much research or diligence to back it up. Both sources cited by the NRA--Wright and Halbrook--said the figure was not particularly credible, with Wright saying it was not relevant and Halbrook labeling it as hyperbole. Korwin outlined a number of issues with the figure in his essay.
Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that the “20,000”--or “9,000”--amounts to false precision. The argument the NRA wants to make is no less credible if the talking point was that there are “many, many laws,” rather than 20,000 or 9,000. We wavered between Two and Three Pinocchios, but the fact that this factoid had been repeated so often and for so long is ultimately what tipped it to three.