"Overwhelming" support for more background checks not so overwhelming after all

How often have you heard gun control advocates quoting figures which indicate that “more than 90%” of gun owners, NRA members, hunters or whoever else support “universal background checks” in the past couple of years? If you follow this subject even casually your answer was most likely pretty often. It’s been repeated enough that we generally see it accepted as part of the conventional wisdom. But as is so often the case these day, the “conventional wisdom” is frequently neither. The NRA Institute for Legislative Action has dug into some of the actual numbers on this question and more, finding that how a question is phrased to the public can have a significant impact on the data.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) explored this possibility in its own poll, which asked a more nuanced question. This first explained that most gun show sales involve licensed dealers who are already required to conduct background checks under federal law, and then asked whether the person agreed or disagreed that additional laws, including enhanced background checks, were necessary for gun show sales.

When the issue was presented in context, the support for increased background checks was less than half of what is claimed by various gun control groups, and nowhere near an overwhelming majority of those polled. The majority (53 percent) of those taking part in the NSSF survey agreed that more restrictions were not necessary. These results are further bolstered by results at the ballot box, where restrictive background check laws have seen nowhere near the 90 percent support claimed by gun control supporters.

As always, you need to be careful when reading poll results and pay attention to how well built the poll is. It’s a fairly easy job when the questions have to do with things such as, do you prefer Candidate A or Candidate B in the upcoming election? But when we veer off into more complex issues such as gun control, abortion, gay marriage and all the rest, you can quickly find yourself in push-poll territory if you don’t keep an eye on the pollster. And this works in both directions.

In this case, the NSSF numbers seem to be backed up by real world scenarios where such experiments have been attempted. As the NRA-ILA reported, Virginia passed a new law last year authorizing voluntary background checks for private gun sales at gun shows. Money was made available to implement it and the police were available to perform background checks for private sales. How did that work out? (Emphasis added)

Since the law was passed, with 77 gun shows across the state, only 54 voluntary background checks in total were requested, most of which occurred within the first six months the law was in effect. Only a single person was denied (apparently due to an outstanding felony arrest warrant) and even this came to nothing: the news reports indicate there were no criminal charges resulting from the denied purchase. In contrast, federally licensed dealers at these shows performed close to 40,000 background checks.

One may suppose that cost was a prohibiting factor, but the fee for the private background check was a modest two dollars. A more plausible explanation for the shortfall between the touted support for enhanced background checks and what actually happened is that the support just isn’t there.

That may be considered anecdotal in nature, but the figures are pretty compelling. The argument being made by control advocates is that even gun owners (as opposed to the general public at large) are hugely in favor of additional background checks. The people at gun shows filling out the forms and making purchases definitely represent that narrower field of subjects. 54 requested checks across the entire state tells me that the gun owning community isn’t really onboard with this scheme at a 90% rate. And if you are in the process of either selling or purchasing a new firearm, if two dollars for a background check is a prohibitive factor you should probably wait a few more paydays to make the purchase.

But that won’t stop the Michael Bloomberg funded groups from repeating those statistics ad nauseam. Why let a little thing like reality interfere with your publicity campaign?