Ann Carter is a 70-year-old gun owner in Kentucky who keeps her grandfather’s antique shotgun shell on a chain in her safe. She used to be a Democrat but flipped Republican a long time ago.
When it comes to keeping suspects on the government’s terrorist watch list from buying guns, she thinks such plans go a step too far.
“It’s not accurate,” Carter says, referring to the list that has become a flashpoint in gun control debates. “They don’t know what they’re doing. Our government is so screwed up it don’t know its right hand from its left.”
Carter belongs to a small but vocal segment of critics of new gun restrictions whose outsized influence was on full display this week as the U.S. Senate rejected four bills that sought to close the terror gap. Two of the measures also would have expanded background checks to more gun sales.
The failure of the bills, introduced after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, highlighted once again the disconnect between public support and congressional action. A Gallup poll conducted last week found that 84 percent of Democrats support barring people on the watch list from buying guns, as do 75 percent of Republicans. Broad majorities also favor universal background checks.
Who belongs to the slivers of the population who aren’t onboard with closing the terror gap and expanding screenings for gun transfers? Public opinion surveys provide an incomplete portrait, but the data suggests that many of the fiercest opponents of gun regulation share some characteristics.
The Pew Research Center provided The Trace with a breakout of respondents to a July 2015 poll who indicated opposition to expanded background checks. The numbers show that people who oppose requiring checks at gun shows are more likely to be male, white, and lack a college degree than those that support such laws.
Among opponents of expanded checks, the gender split is 57 percent male to 42 percent female.
Forty-nine percent were white, 15 percent were black. In that same pool, those whose schooling stopped at high school were nearly five times as likely to oppose background checks at gun shows than those with a college degree.
By a nearly two-to-one margin, opponents of background checks at gun shows are also less likely to say that they do not live in a gun-owning household.
In separate polling conducted by Quinnipiac University last December, Republicans disfavored the expansion of background checks in greater numbers than Democrats or independents.
Pollsters have conducted less research on the question of closing the terror gap. In the Quinnipiac results, more men (17 percent of those polled) were against closing the terror gap than women (9 percent). Republicans (20 percent) were more likely than Democrats (9 percent) and independents (9 percent) to say they opposed legislation.
In interviews with The Trace, opponents of new restrictions outlined views that broadly align with arguments advanced by the National Rifle Association and many Senate Republicans. They say they fear new laws will subject innocent Americans to unwarranted scrutiny and result in increased government interference.
A primary concern, they say, is that barring guns from people suspected of terrorist ties would trample due process — the idea that the government can’t take people’s liberties away without a fair trial.
Stephen Bozich, a 39-year-old Army veteran who teaches concealed carry classes in Moore County, North Carolina, says the government should obtain convictions before rescinding someone’s ability to purchase a gun legally.
“I thought we were all operating under the same common belief system,” Bozich says. “Apparently, I’m mistaken.”
Some also doubted the accuracy of the watch list, saying it includes people who pose no threat to national security. Their skepticism is at least in part fueled by high-profile instances of innocent people being stopped at airports.
“I think it’s kind of stupid,” says Carter, who opposes the watch list ban but not expanding background checks. “For all I know, I’m on it.”
As for background checks, at least some believe that scrutinizing weapon transfers between private citizens will amount to government overreach and fail to prevent mass shootings like the one that killed 49 people and wounded another 53 earlier this month in Orlando, Florida. They also fear that universal background checks will inevitably result in a nationwide gun registry, something they have long opposed.
“It’s not the government’s business to know what I have,” Bozich says.
One of the gun control bills, introduced by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, gave the Attorney General the discretion to halt gun sales to anyone who had been investigated for terrorism ties over the last five years. Her bill failed in a largely party-line vote after Republicans raised objections over due process.
A competing proposal offered by John Cornyn would have given the Justice Department three business days to prove in court that a possible extremist was likely to commit terrorism and therefore should not be allowed to acquire firearms.
Chuck Reynolds, a 50-year-old tradesman in Peoria, Illinois, believes the government’s method for determining who is on the watch list is arbitrary and vindictive.
“I don’t trust the people currently in government who are going to determine who’s on the terrorist watch list,” Reynolds says.
Terrill Bennett, a 66-year-old retired systems analyst in Utica, Ohio, says he opposes the terror gap measure because the no-fly list was prone to errors. He pointed to the now infamous example of former Senator Ted Kennedy once being stopped at an airport because his name was similar to one on the list.
“It’s the same as McCarthy with his communist list,” Bennett says. “It’s the same stuff. It’s a witch hunt, and I don’t agree with that, and I don’t think our founding fathers would either.”
[Photo: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg/Getty Images]