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Originally published Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 12:43 PM

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FACT CHECK: Gun-control claims miss target

The intensifying gun-control debate has given rise to sloppy claims on both sides.

Associated Press

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WASHINGTON —

The intensifying gun-control debate has given rise to sloppy claims on both sides.

Here's a sampling, with the first two examples from the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing on guns Wednesday, and the third from Vice President Joe Biden's online video chat last week during a Google Plus forum.

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IOWA SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY, the top Republican on the committee: "The 1994 assault weapon ban did not stop Columbine. The Justice Department found the ban ineffective."

THE FACTS: The 2004 study conducted for the Justice Department did not conclude the decade-old ban was a failure or a success. The nuanced report found that the effects of the ban "have yet to be fully realized" and it might take years to see results directly attributable to the prohibition on certain weapons and large capacity magazines. The ban expired later in 2004.

The study's author, Christopher S. Koper, then of the University of Pennsylvania, considered the restrictions modest and speculated that they would have similarly measured results - perhaps as much as a 5 percent decline in gunshot victimization over time if the ban were kept in effect.

His main finding: There were not enough statistics and time to understand the impact of the ban and "it may take many years for the effects of modest, incremental policy changes to be fully felt, a reality that both researchers and policy makers should heed."

The study made no recommendation whether the ban should be renewed. But it said that if the ban expired, it was "possible, and perhaps probable" that new assault weapons and large capacity magazines coming into the market "will eventually be used to commit mass murder."

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WAYNE LaPIERRE, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association: "I think without any doubt, if you look at why our Founding Fathers put it (the Second Amendment) there, they had lived under the tyranny of King George and they wanted to make sure that these free people in this new country would never be subjugated again and have to live under tyranny. I also think, though, that what people all over the country fear today is being abandoned by their government. If a tornado hits, if a hurricane hits, if a riot occurs, that they're gonna be out there alone. And the only way they're going to protect themselves in the cold and the dark, when they're vulnerable, is with a firearm. And I think that indicates how relevant and essential the Second Amendment is in today's society to fundamental human survival."

SEN. DICK DURBIN, Illinois Democrat: "Well, Chief Johnson, you've heard it. The belief of NRA is, the Second Amendment has to give American citizens the firepower to fight back against you, against our government."

THE FACTS: Durbin mischaracterized LaPierre's statement in this exchange, which also involved James Johnson, Baltimore (Md.) County police chief.

LaPierre drew a distinction between what he saw as the original purpose of the Second Amendment and a contemporary fear that the government will abandon citizens, so that they must be able to protect themselves against criminals after a disaster. His statement was not a call to arms against the government.

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LaPIERRE: "Out of more than 76,000 firearms purchases supposedly denied by the federal instant check system, only 62 were referred for prosecution and only 44 were actually prosecuted. Proposing more gun laws while failing to enforce the thousands we already have, it's not a serious solution for reducing crime."

THE FACTS: LaPierre accurately cited statistics from a Justice Department report on 2010 cases, but there is much more to the numbers than meets the eye and perhaps less drama than he conveyed.

When the FBI denies a gun purchase under a background check, that starts a winnowing-down process aimed at sorting out who's potentially dangerous in the large pool of applicants who are turned down for a variety of reasons.

When someone who falls into a prohibited category for a gun purchase applies to buy a weapon under the background check system, there may be nothing to prosecute. Mere misunderstandings or clumsy answers on the form are not a crime. Lying on the form is, but not one likely to motivate a prosecution, absent other troubling factors.

If the rejected purchaser is a convicted felon, under a restraining order, the subject of a domestic violence misdemeanor conviction or meeting similar criteria, authorities are more apt to follow up after denying the sale.

Here's how the winnowing-down worked in 2010:

The FBI referred 76,142 background check denials to a branch of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for screening. There, the vast majority of the denials were judged to fall short of the guidelines for further action, or were overturned.

The rest, 4,732 denials, were referred to ATF field divisions for investigation. Most went no farther. In the majority of those cases, authorities saw insufficient merit for prosecution or concluded the federal or state guidelines for proceeding were not met. And in 480 cases, the people investigated were found not to have merited the denial.

Ultimately, the field divisions referred 62 charges for consideration by prosecutors, and they went ahead with 44, winning 13 guilty pleas and dismissing 10 in plea agreements. The rest were continuing past the period covered in the report.

Prosecutions are only one way to measure the performance of background checks. The same system that ultimately produced few convictions also blocked tens of thousands of gun sales to people prohibited from buying them, forcing them to get their weapons another way or go without. Most federal gun prosecution takes place outside the background check system.

Even so, the government is sensitive to criticism that enforcement overall is lagging. President Barack Obama's recent executive actions on gun control include steps to spur prosecution, in what can be seen as a tacit acknowledgment that existing laws have not been used to full effect.

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BIDEN: "Let me give you an example: 98 percent, according to a New York Times poll, 98 percent of the American people believe that there should be tighter controls on who can own a gun."

THE FACTS: It would be a miracle if 98 percent of Americans agreed on anything. And by any measure, that many don't agree on guns.

In a New York Times/CBS News poll, 54 percent said "gun control laws should be made more strict," 34 percent said they should be left as they are and 9 percent said they should be less strict. The poll also found that 92 percent would favor "a federal law requiring background checks on all potential gun buyers," a result on par with the level of support that proposal gets in other polls. Biden made the comment last week at a Google Plus forum.

How elusive is 98 percent agreement?

Americans came close after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In October 2001, Gallup found that 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden had an unfavorable rating of 97 percent.

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Associated Press writers Jennifer Agiesta and Alicia A. Caldwell contributed to this report.

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