Why Do We Think Hillary Is A Liar? The Washington Post’s Fact Check of Hillary Clinton’s Comments on Gun Policy

Hillary Clinton has been called a liar many, many times before.  Trump supporters call her a liar.  Bernie supporters call her a liar.  Fox News’ business model is essentially calling her a liar now that President Obama can no longer run for president.

But why?  Does she lie?  I’m sure she does.  But does she lie more than other politicians?  And are some of her “lies” actual lies?

Well, those are better questions.  A few weeks ago, Jill Abramson wrote an interesting piece on how Hillary is fundamentally honest.  She brings up some salient points.  For example, Hillary has a much better record of telling the truth than Trump or Cruz and even a better record than Bernie for telling the truth according to Politifact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact checking website.

Even when she does get fact checked, however, she may be getting a raw deal.

This week, the Washington Post rated a recent Hillary statement as “three Pinnochios.”

Here’s the statement they were evaluating:

[Sanders] frequently says, ‘We’re a small, rural state, we have no gun laws.’ Here’s what I want you to know. Most of the guns that are used in crimes and violence and killings in New York come from out of state. And the state that has the highest per capita number of those guns that end up committing crimes in New York come from Vermont. So this is not, ‘Oh I live in a rural state we don’t have any of these problems.’ This is, you know what, it’s easy to cross borders. Criminals, domestic abusers, traffickers, people who are dangerously ill, they cross borders too. And sometimes they do it to get the guns they use.

The Post didn’t analyze Hillary’s claim that Bernie has said that Vermont is a rural state, which affects his and its gun policy.  I did, though, and it’s true.

In its analysis ,the Post noted that a New York Times article showed that in New York and New Jersey over a nine-year period more than two-thirds of crime guns had come from out of state.  So that assertion also checks out.

The big issue is the following sentence: “And the state that has the highest per capita number of those guns that end up committing crimes in New York come from Vermont.”  Looking at ATF data for 2013 and 2014, the Post notes that “[t]he state with the most number of guns per 100,000 people was, indeed, Vermont.”  So this assertion is factually correct.

Nonetheless, despite every assertion being supported by data and factually accurate, the Post decided to give Hillary three Pinocchios.  The Pinocchio scale rating scale is explained here; three Pinocchios are usually reserved for those that contain “significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions” but “could include statements which are technically correct (such as based on official government data) but are so taken out of context as to be very misleading.”

The Post thought that three Pinoochios appropriate because the raw number of guns used in New York crimes is so small that “[u]sing the per capita measure of trafficked guns originating from Vermont is as pointless as counting guns trafficked per 100,000 head of cattle.”

According to its own standard, though, the relevant test is to whether an assertion is pointless.  It’s whether it’s misleading.  And the entire point is neither untrue nor misleading.

Hillary’s point is about federal gun policy.  She and Bernie are both running for president of the United States.  She believes in strong gun control laws federally because even if certain states have strong gun control laws, as New York and New Jersey do, guns can enter through other states.  Her point is not seriously contradicted by experts, or even by the Post’s article.  She uses Vermont as an example because that is the state Bernie has represented in Congress for over twenty five years.  Her point is that Bernie may only be concerned about his constituents’ views on gun control, but his views affect other states.  This is undoubtedly true, especially when he was a member of the Senate, where Vermont has as many representatives as New York despite the huge discrepancies in population.

The Post’s analysis quotes an expert who says that the biggest supply of guns into New York is from Southern states, the so-called Iron Pipeline.  Imagine if Hillary had swapped her factual but allegedly misleading statement with “The state other than New York from which the most guns were used in crimes in New York was Virginia, a large rural state.”  Her entire statement then would have been: “[Sanders] frequently says, ‘We’re a small, rural state, we have no gun laws.’ Here’s what I want you to know. Most of the guns that are used in crimes and violence and killings in New York come from out of state. The state other than New York from which the most guns were used in crimes in New York was Virginia, a large rural state. So this is not, ‘Oh I live in a rural state we don’t have any of these problems.’ This is, you know what, it’s easy to cross borders. Criminals, domestic abusers, traffickers, people who are dangerously ill, they cross borders too. And sometimes they do it to get the guns they use.”

A different factual assertion slides right in and the same point is made: gun policy needs to be enacted at a federal level and pandering to those in rural states does real damage.  Maybe Hillary’s point about the per capita number of guns from Vermont is irrelevant (for what it’s worth earlier works from the Post in 2010 and 2015 on the source of guns used in crimes across state lines provides both raw numbers and per capita numbers), even if accurate.  But her greater point that jurisdictions with strict gun control policies, like New York or Chicago, are greatly negatively affected by jurisdictions without such policies is without question.

So we have an article that fails its own standards to essentially call Hillary a liar from a paper that earlier printed a misleading headline that led to a strong response from Bernie.  It’s hard to imagine why Hillary would be guarded with the media.  It’s also important to keep in mind when evaluating candidates that if we have certain “gut” feelings or associations with candidates that we really analyze them and ensure they’re not based on inaccuracies or inappropriate metrics like gender or race.

PolitiFact, just looking at the one most controversial sentence, finds that the “specific statistical computation is accurate” but the “claim is misleading for a varied number of reasons” and “leaves out important details and context” so they rate in half true.  Again, I think Hillary’s broader statement is about federal gun policy and the argument that it’s problematic for states, and in particular rural ones, to have lax gun laws because of the flow from those states to jurisdictions with big cities.  Of course, reasonable minds can disagree.*  One can think, as I do, that Hillary used an example, perhaps not a great one, that is consistent with her larger point and relevant because of who her opponent is.  Or one can think that she was trying to incorrectly paint Vermont as the biggest problem New York faces in gun trafficking and as part of an unfair attack on Bernie.  One of those is certainly consistent with a media narrative, regardless of its accuracy.

 

 

 

*It is completely possible that I’m thinking about things too literally and too much like a litigator, but it’s hard for me to get behind an argument that someone is lying or a liar if they tell the literal truth.  The Supreme Court has held that literal truth cannot be perjury even if it was intended to be misleading and is arguably false by negative implication.  Of course, one might think that if Hillary was being intentionally misleading that is as bad or nearly as bad as lying.  One also might think that she wasn’t being intentionally misleading.

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