With a measure being considered in the U.S. Congress to implement so-called “universal” background checks, supporters of the measure in both politics and the media are trotting out polls to convince Americans that nearly every adult in the United States supports such a measure.
One such number we see so often is that 90% of Americans favor passing a “universal” background check law. Along with that astounding assertion—astounding since it’s virtually impossible to get half of all Americans to agree on anything, much less 90%—is this statement, which was said on CNN: “Even 74 percent of NRA members favor universal background checks.”
Before we look at the first claim, let’s take a look at the assertion about NRA members. The truth is, NRA members tend to cherish their privacy, as do many gun owners. And since the association’s leaders respect that in the membership, they don’t make lists of NRA members or their contact information available.
So, despite the claim that would indicate an actual randomized poll of NRA members had been conducted, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
In that case, where’s the oft-repeated number come from? It can be traced back to a 2013 poll by two Johns Hopkins University entities—the Department of Health Policy and Management and the Center for Gun Policy and Research. The online poll was supposedly responded to by 2,703 people, including 169 who said they were NRA members.
In truth, they might or might not have been members. Given the anti-gun sentiment at the time, it’s likely that NRA members contacted would have either refused to answer the questions or not mentioned that they were members.
So the entire 74% figure comes from 169 people who told pollsters they were NRA members and that they favored expanded background checks. Interestingly, when called out on the story by NRA officials, who informed the public that no polling organizations had access to NRA membership rolls, fake fact-checking site PolitiFact deemed the impossible-to-get figure to be “True.” Go figure.
That brings us to the 90% statement. Even most casual observers realize that to get 90% agreement on anything the question must be carefully worded to get positive responses from some who don’t really favor such a law. In this case, the favorite trick of many anti-gun pollsters is to throw a boogeyman into the mix—gun shows.
While most people who aren’t “gun guys” and “gun gals” aren’t aware of it, the laws are the same at gun shows as they are anywhere else. If a person buys a gun from a licensed firearms dealer at a gun show, he or she has to undergo a NICS check—just like anywhere else. If a person at a gun show buys a gun from a private citizen, no NICS check is required unless a state law mandates it—just like anywhere else.
Yet, since the media has constantly villainized gun shows and harped about a nonexistent “gun-show loophole” for decades, some Americans believe there is a gun-show loophole. And pollsters take advantage of that misconception.
Now, here’s the biggest reason why these polls are bunk.
Let’s, for example, consider the way the question was asked in actual polls by NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist: “Do you think Congress should or should not pass legislation to require background checks for gun purchases at gun shows or other private sales?”
And, “In order to reduce gun violence, do you think requiring background checks for gun purchases at gun shows or other private sales will make a difference or not make a difference?”
Note the precursor on the last one: “In order to reduce gun violence… .” While there’s no proof that such an expansion of background checks would do so, asking the question in that way makes it hard to say “no.” After all, who doesn’t want to reduce violence?
The question could just have easily asked, “Since this legislation would likely have no effect on gun violence and criminals don’t follow laws anyway, do you think requiring background checks on gun transfers, including loans, between friends and family members will reduce violent crime?”
That’s how the game is played. And anyone who dares to question the results becomes an immediate target.
Not to mention that if 90% of Americans really supported expanding background checks, why did Maine voters soundly reject an initiative for expanded checks?
In the end, the 90% “factoid” is very suspect. And there’s absolutely no legitimate proof that 74% of NRA members favor making gun owners pay for NICS checks before they can allow a friend or relative to borrow or shoot a gun they own.