At a recent social gathering, I was approached by a gentleman who had heard I had written a book about the gun control issue. "I am a gun owner," he began. I braced myself for the usual lecture on the sacrosanct Second Amendment and the futility of gun regulation. What he said next, however, left me surprised and relieved. "I can't stand the NRA," he continued. "I quit them years ago. They are so extreme."
My initial assumption, that a gun owner would simply parrot the NRA line, likely reflects the thinking of many politicians on the gun issue. They simplistically fear that any vote to impose new gun regulations will be seen as an attack on their gun-owning constituents. I should have known better. Opinion surveys have long shown broad gun owner support for a range of stronger gun laws.
But a new survey, by Republican pollster Frank Luntz and commissioned by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition of over 400 mayors, even more dramatically contradicts the conventional political wisdom on the gun issue. Not only does the NRA not represent the views of gun owners on major issues of gun policy; it doesn't even represent the views of its own membership.
For example, the Luntz survey found that 69% of self-described NRA members agree that all gun sellers at gun shows should be required to conduct criminal background checks on prospective buyers, a reform that would close the infamous "gun show loophole". Luntz found that 82% of NRA members support "prohibiting persons on the terrorist watch lists from purchasing guns." Seventy-eight percent of NRA members support "requiring gun owners to alert police if their guns are lost or stolen." All of these measures are vehemently opposed by the NRA.
The Luntz poll struck a raw nerve at NRA headquarters, which immediately issued an ad hominem attack on Frank Luntz. The gun lobby's problem, of course, is that no one can credibly accuse Luntz of bias in favor of progressive positions, given his outsized reputation for putting Democrats on the defensive through his effective messaging for Republicans. Moreover, Luntz found that a majority of NRA members strongly support the Second Amendment and oppose some gun control proposals, results that reinforce the credibility of his survey as a whole.
The Luntz poll isn't the first to indicate a cleavage between the NRA's policy positions and its members. Indeed, in 1993, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, using data from a 1989 Time Magazine/CNN survey, found that "when gun owners are asked about specific regulatory requirements, they often support the regulation, disagreeing with the stated position of the organization [the NRA]. This holds true for both NRA members and nonmembers." I suspect that the Luntz results, however, coming from a pollster who has spent much of his career devising messages to support conservative Republicans, will have an impact no prior survey has had.
Let's hope the Luntz results will open some eyes in the political leadership of both major parties. It seems undeniable that the opposition to reasonable steps to reduce gun violence is driven by a cadre of ideological extremists who obsessively communicate their views to Congressional offices, state legislators, newspapers, talk radio hosts and anyone else who will listen (including the Huffington Post!). When the NRA opposes extending Brady background checks to all gun show sales, or other sensible reforms, it is speaking for them, and only for them. The Luntz poll is the most compelling evidence yet that these extremists are both a minority of gun owners and a minority of NRA members.
The Luntz results reminded me of an insightful comment made back in the summer by Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen as he spoke out against an NRA-supported bill passed by his state's legislature allowing holders of concealed carry permits to carry guns into bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. (Last month the law was struck down by a Nashville judge as unconstitutionally vague.) "This is an issue which is being driven by a few thousand people in the state who are very passionate about this issue," he said, "but I think there are tens of thousands or millions of people who . . . particularly in cases like the guns-in-bars are just shaking their heads and thinking it's craziness." He added that there are "about 3,000 to 3,500 people out there who always engage on these (gun) issues, are constantly there, e-mailing everybody on the issue." Governor Bredesen understood that it was his duty to serve the majority of his constituents, not simply pander to the noisy few.
How much gun craziness must our nation endure before more of our politicians start standing up to the extremist minority to enforce the common aspiration of the majority of Americans, including NRA members, for reasonable gun laws to protect the safety and security of our families and communities?
For more information, see Dennis Henigan's new book, Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy.