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The Tampa Bay Times has a pretty good thing going with their fact-checking site Politifact.com, and their so-called Truth-O-Meter. The “fact checks” on the site tend to follow a reasonably intelligent pattern.

  • Present a disputed claim, and the context in which it occurs
  • attempt to find the basis or source for the claim
  • attempt to determine if the information provided by the source is valid, correct, or relevent
  • render a conclusion.

When Politifact.com renders their conclusion, they use the following scale.

  • True – The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.
  • Mostly True – The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.
  • Half True – The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.
  • Mostly False – The statement contains some element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.
  • False – The statement is not accurate.
  • Pants on Fire – The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.

Earlier this month, they took on Gun Owners of America Executive Director Larry Pratt’s claims on the reliability of so-called “smart guns.”

The debate over “smart guns” doesn’t always turn up accurate talking points.

Exhibit A: Sarah Palin telling the National Rifle Association crowd about a (nonexistent) federal plan to make gun owners wear “special bracelets that would identify you as a gun owner.”

Exhibit B: MSNBC host Chris Hayes’ recent on-air shouting match with Larry Pratt, executive director of the lobbying group Gun Owners of America.

Smart guns — also known as “child-proof guns” and “personalized guns” — are designed to work solely for authorized users through features like fingerprint recognition or electronic sensors. The hope is they will reduce deaths by suicide, accidental shootings or someone stealing a law enforcement officer’s weapon. They are not sold in the United States, though two dealers tried before backing down amid intense pressure from activists.

Hayes supports the technology, but Pratt and other gun-rights advocates are skeptical. Pratt questions the guns’ reliability, saying smart guns are “only 80 percent effective.” When Hayes pressed Pratt for the source of his statistic, Pratt cited the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

“Twenty percent of the time it won’t work,” Pratt said. “And you’re asking people to put their lives in the hands of a product like that?”

Later, Pratt used the figure again. “Is it okay to put on the market a car that 20 percent of the time explodes on you and causes you harm or death?”

Since Pratt tripled down on his statistic, PunditFact wanted to check it out.

A claim asserting that “smart guns” (and we’ll drop the quotes for the rest of the article) have a 20-percent failure rate is an alarming claim worth checking out… and how Politifact.com chooses to check out that claim is just as interesting as the claim itself.