Do We Really All Support Background Checks?

If I had a nickel for every gun violence prevention (GVP) advocate and/or gun violence researchers who believes that the American public is not so polarized about controlling guns, I would be somewhere at my golf club and not sitting in my office writing, doing emails, answering the phone and doing all the things I do in order to keep my checkbook occasionally in balance. And this GVP belief in the ability to work with the ‘other side’ stems primarily from endless surveys which show that even gun owners and/or Republicans (usually the same thing) support comprehensive background checks.

polls2             The latest pronouncement in this respect comes from one of our leading gun researchers, Garen Wintemute, who is now overseeing a $5 million grant from the State of California to fund research that has been left undone since the CDC stopped funding gun violence research back in 1998. As ‘proof’ that we are not so divided over the issue of background checks, I quote Wintemute from a recent interview in the Los Angeles Times: “90% of the general population supports (background checks for all firearms purchases), 80% of gun owners support it and 70% of self-reported NRA members support it. Things are not as polarized as they seem.”

I’m assuming that Wintemute took these numbers from the Pew poll published back in June which found, among other things, that 19% of all gun owners were members of the NRA. If this were true, the $165 million they pulled in from dues in 2015 would be chump change compared to what they would really rack if the 19% ‘NRA members’ were paying annual dues. Try about $250 million, okay?

But since the Pew researchers made no effort to ask people why they said they were members of America’s oldest civil rights organization, for the moment let’s accept the number as true even if it’s not. Here’s a bigger truth. The NRA has come out officially and publicly against any expansion of background checks. Period. No compromise whatsoever. So what the Pew researchers should have asked, and perhaps one of Wintemute’s research colleagues will get around to asking at some point is this: ‘If you favor background checks, would you drop your NRA membership because the organization is opposed to background checks?’  Or perhaps instead of that question, the researchers would ask something along the lines like this: ‘Would you vote for someone whose stance on issues included expanding background checks?’

Remember a political candidate named Hillary Clinton? She used a very strong GVP argument to knock Bernie out of the box. The only problem is that the same argument didn’t work in the general election worth a damn. I’m not saying that Trump won the election only because of his stance on 2nd-Amendment ‘rights.’ What I am saying is that asking the average person if they favor expanded background checks doesn’t really tell you very much about how that individual will really line up and be counted when a new gun law is being debated in the jurisdiction where that individual happens to live.

I’m also not saying that gun owners are ignorant of the importance of background checks for the transfer a gun from one set of hands to another set of hands. Nor am I saying they are lying when they tell a survey-taker that they support expanded background checks. But asking someone to respond to a specific question about guns doesn’t really tell you how the answer to that question lines up with other thoughts the same person holds about guns and how best to use public policies to diminish the violence caused by guns.

The same gun owners who told Pew they favored comprehensive background checks also said they wanted teachers to carry guns in schools and in case you don’t remember, arming teachers was the NRA’s response following the massacre at Sandy Hook.

If only the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ could be measured by responses to a single question in a poll.

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One thought on “Do We Really All Support Background Checks?

  1. Its also complicated in a few ways not explicitly mentioned here. For example, one might conceptually favor background checks but get cold feet and find the specific bill being introduced to be a poor example. One might also see a background check bill being introduced as part of a package, or see it introduced in a polarizing way (as I saw last winter in the New Mexico Legislature).

    During that session, I tried to modify the background check bill, HB-50, (or “water it down” as some would say) but the rhetorical die was cast. Besides, for every one of me who showed up a few days in the legislative session when I could get off of work, there were a lot of the “ban guns” vs. “cold dead hands” folks there making sure the extreme positions got the most bandwidth.

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