“The NRA does not represent all gun owners, and it certainly does not represent me,” wrote North Carolina hunter David Fellerath in a Washington Post opinion piece that went viral early this summer. A survey released Tuesday by Public Policy Polling, a firm that often works with progressive candidates and groups, puts hard numbers to Fellerath’s assertion, quantifying just how much daylight exists between the positions of the leading gun lobby and the views of everyday Americans who possess firearms.
In one of the most striking findings, 56 percent of the Republican gun owners polled said they would be more likely to support a candidate who favors universal background checks; only about a quarter said that such a stance would likely cost an office-seeker their vote. Even among NRA members, the survey found openness to reform. Forty-eight percent indicated they’d be more inclined to cast a ballot for a politician who wants to close the private-sale loophole. For another 14 percent of NRA members, a candidate’s stance on background checks would not tilt their support one way or the other.
That political data was undergirded by the strong favorability the poll found for tougher restrictions as a policy solution: 83 percent of all gun owners and 72 percent of the NRA members surveyed voiced support for universal background checks. Past surveys have had similar takeaways. In July 2012, the Republican pollster Frank Luntz conducted a poll of gun owners on behalf of Mayors Against Illegal Guns (a predecessor to Everytown for Gun Safety, which is a seed donor to The Trace). Luntz’s firm found 74 percent of NRA members favored background checks for every gun transaction. Pew Research asked the same question of households with NRA members in 2013, and got the same answer.
Just under 60 percent said they strongly or somewhat agree with the following statement: “The NRA used to be an organization dedicated to gun safety, but it’s been overtaken by lobbyists and the interests of gun manufacturers and lost its original purpose and mission.”
With the appetite for expanded background checks — and the NRA’s opposition to them — both holding steady, the gun group’s resistance to new safety measures may be affecting how gun owners regard it. In the new PPP poll, only 29 percent of the respondents said they believe the NRA represents their views on the issue. Meanwhile, just under 60 percent said they strongly or somewhat agree with the following statement: “The NRA used to be an organization dedicated to gun safety, but it’s been overtaken by lobbyists and the interests of gun manufacturers and lost its original purpose and mission.” (As a subset, the NRA members in the survey expressed less alienation. Fifty-five percent felt aligned with the organization’s position on background checks; another 12 percent said they were “not sure.” Only a third of NRA members said they believe the organization has been led astray by lobbyists and firearms makers.)
The poll, commissioned by the Center for American Progress and MoveOn.org, queried 816 gun owners, a quarter of whom identified themselves as NRA members — a larger share than in the population at large, where the NRA claims that 5 million of the roughly 50 million American adults who own guns belong to its ranks. About one half of the respondents answered that they own guns for hunting (39 percent) or target shooting (12 percent); for the other, the motivation is self-defense (32 percent), exercising their Second Amendment rights (8 percent), or “something else” (9 percent).
The results were released on a day when a contingent of moderate gun owners were in Washington D.C. for a meeting at the White House. One of them was Republican Mark Carman, founder of a Facebook group called the American Coalition for Responsible Gun Ownership. In the wake of the Umpqua Community College Shooting, Carman aired his frustrations with the NRA and called for new laws in a clip he posted to YouTube — a kind of video companion to David Fellerath’s OpEd.
Along with an audience with Valerie Jarrett, Carman’s testimonial earned him ugly personal attacks from gun rights extremists. Taken together with the PPP data, experiences like his point to a new question ripe for study by political scientists: On gun policy, is the most meaningful divide between Democrats and Republicans, or between the differing camps of firearms enthusiasts?