Fact-check Fail: Politico's Dovere Claims Mostly-Accurate Romney Claim on 'Automatic Weapons' Is Untrue

Updated at bottom of post | Politico's Edward-Isaac Dovere might want to brush up on federal firearms law before he holds forth on "fact-checking" statements about the issue. During a "Truth Squad" segment reacting to Tuesday night's debate on the October 17 Jansing & Co., the Politico deputy White House editor told MSNBC anchor Chris Jansing that Romney "is not correct as the [federal] law currently stands" regarding automatic weapons. Romney told the debate audience last night that "we of course don't want to have automatic weapons, and that's already illegal in this country [for civilians] to have automatic weapons."

"The assault weapons ban expired, this was the law when Bill Clinton signed it in when he was president, but it expired under George Bush and it has not been renewed," Dovere noted, adding, "the way Congress is going at this point, it doesn't look like it will be." But Dovere is confusing the expired ban on so-called semiautomatic assault weapons with long-standing federal restrictions on automatic weapons.


While automatic weapons like machine guns are not technically illegal, owning or buying them is highly-regulated by federal law and has been since the 1930s. From a plain-language document compiled by the state of Connecticut:

Federal law defines a machine gun as “any weapon which shoots, is designed to shoot, or can be readily restored to shoot, automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger.” This definition includes the frame or receiver, any part or combination of parts designed and intended, solely and exclusively, for use in converting a weapon into a machine gun, and any combination of parts from which a machine gun can be assembled (26 USC § 5845(b), 27 CFR §§ 478.11 & 479.11). It does not include “antique firearms” (26 USC § 5845(a) & (g)).

Since 1934, Congress has strictly regulated the manufacture, transfer, and possession of machine guns. The firearms are regulated by the 1934 National Firearms Act (NFA) (26 USC § 5801 et seq.) and the 1968 Gun Control Act as amended by the 1986 Firearms Owners' Protection Act (18 USC § 921 et seq.).

The agency responsible for administering and enforcing federal firearm laws, including machine gun laws, is the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. (Until January 24, 2003, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was within the Treasury Department. The 2002 Homeland Security Act transferred it to the Justice Department and changed its name to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.)

To obtain a license for a machine gun is a drawn-out affair:

An unlicensed individual may acquire machine guns, with ATF approval, from its lawful owner residing in the same state as the individual (27 CFR §§ 479.84 & 479.105). The transferor must file an ATF application, which must be completed by both parties to the transfer and executed under penalties of perjury, and pay a $200 transfer tax to ATF. The application must include detailed information on the firearm and the parties to the transfer (26 USC § 5812 & 27 CFR § 479.84).

The transferee must certify on the application that he or she is not disqualified from possessing firearms on grounds specified in law. He or she must submit with the application (1) two photographs taken within the past year; (2) fingerprints; and (3) a copy of any state or local permit or license required to buy, possess, or acquire machine guns (27 CFR § 479.85).

An appropriate law enforcement official must also certify whether he or she has any information indicating that the firearm will be used for other than lawful purposes or that possession would violate state or federal law (27 CFR § 479.85).

Technically, Gov. Romney is incorrect. Federal law does not outright forbid ownership of fully-automatic weapons, but they are heavily-regulated. But Dovere's fact-checking foolishly confused automatic weapons with the semi-automatics that were covered by the 1994 Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act (emphasis mine):

SEC. 110102. RESTRICTION ON MANUFACTURE, TRANSFER, AND POSSESSION OF CERTAIN SEMIAUTOMATIC ASSAULT WEAPONS.

(a) RESTRICTION- Section 922 of title 18, United States Code, is amended by adding at the end the following new subsection:

`(v)(1) It shall be unlawful for a person to manufacture, transfer, or possess a semiautomatic assault weapon.

`(2) Paragraph (1) shall not apply to the possession or transfer of any semiautomatic assault weapon otherwise lawfully possessed under Federal law on the date of the enactment of this subsection.

`(3) Paragraph (1) shall not apply to--

`(A) any of the firearms, or replicas or duplicates of the firearms, specified in Appendix A to this section, as such firearms were manufactured on October 1, 1993;

`(B) any firearm that--

`(i) is manually operated by bolt, pump, lever, or slide action;

`(ii) has been rendered permanently inoperable; or

`(iii) is an antique firearm;

`(C) any semiautomatic rifle that cannot accept a detachable magazine that holds more than 5 rounds of ammunition; or

`(D) any semiautomatic shotgun that cannot hold more than 5 rounds of ammunition in a fixed or detachable magazine.

Update (16:16 EDT): Peter J. Nelson of the Center of the American Experiment emailed me to say that it is accurate to say that, for all intents and purposes, automatic weapons are illegal for U.S. civilians to possess and have been that way since 1934:

While Gov. Romney could have made a more precise statement on the legality of automatic weapons, I don’t think it’s fair for you to say he was technically incorrect. It is illegal to sell and own newly manufactured automatic weapons to civilians and it is illegal to own automatic weapons without special permission from the federal government. The Annenberg fact checkers in the book unSpun characterize the law this way, “It has been illegal in the United States to own a real machine gun since 1934 (except with an expensive and hard-to-obtain federal permit).” Romney would have been more precise if he added the parenthetical, but his statement was correct.

See my blog on the topic here: http://www.americanexperiment.org/blog/201210/who-fact-checks-the-fact-checkers

I appreciate Mr. Nelson's perspective. My point wasn't to score the truthfulness of Romney's claim so much as to highlight Dovere's ignorance in confusing "assault weapons" with "automatic weapons."

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is the Managing Editor for NewsBusters