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Gun control's NRA supporters

Editorial

A poll finds surprising support among NRA members for some aspects of gun control.

December 16, 2009

Gun control is one of those culture-wars issues on which liberals and conservatives often don't even seem to be speaking the same language, let alone coming to consensus. Gun owners -- especially the hard-core enthusiasts who belong to the National Rifle Assn. -- are often thought to oppose any restriction on their 2nd Amendment right to bear arms. Except that, according to a recent poll, they don't.

The gun-control debate is replete with suspect polls and fishy statistical analyses, so when Mayors Against Illegal Guns set out to survey gun owners, it knew it would be accused of putting a liberal slant on the questions. That's why the group, a coalition of 500 mayors started in 2006 by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, hired a conservative pollster to do the job: Frank Luntz, an occasional commentator on the Fox News Channel. Luntz surveyed 401 NRA members and 431 gun owners who don't belong to the group, and came up with some surprising results.

When asked whether they supported or opposed a "proposal requiring all gun sellers at gun shows to conduct criminal background checks of the people buying guns," 69% of the NRA members and 85% of the nonmembers were in favor. This goes to the so-called gun-show loophole, which allows used-gun merchants to sell firearms without doing the background checks that are required when selling new guns. Attempts in Congress to close this loophole have died after meeting strong opposition from the NRA.

Gun owners also were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with this statement: "The federal government should not restrict the police's ability to access, use and share data that helps them enforce federal, state and local gun laws." This goes to the Tiahrt Amendments, provisions attached to federal spending bills that interfere with the ability of police agencies to use federal gun-trace data. The NRA is a big supporter of these amendments, but it's out of touch with its members; 69% of those polled agreed there should be no federal restrictions on trace data, as did 74% of gun owners as a whole.

Why are the NRA's leaders more absolutist than its members? At least in part because they have a financial incentive. It's a common practice by the NRA to send out mailers when a firearms-related bill is proposed that exaggerate its provisions and claim that lawmakers are out to grab guns from law-abiding citizens. Inciting hysteria is a surefire way of increasing contributions, but when NRA members learn that these efforts are really focused at keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, they tend to support them. Knowing this won't change the behavior of the NRA's leadership, but it should help give lawmakers the courage to stand up to the organization. By simply countering NRA propaganda with facts, they can persuade liberals and conservatives alike to back sensible gun-control measures.

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