Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr gave an emotional speech hours after the mass shooting at a Texas elementary school, pleading with lawmakers to pass legislation to expand background checks for gun purchases.
“Do you realize that 90% of Americans, regardless of political party, want background checks, universal background checks? 90% of us,” Kerr said during a news conference before Game 4 of the NBA Western Conference finals. “We’re being held hostage by 50 senators in Washington who refuse to even put it to a vote, despite what we, the American people, want. They won’t vote on it, because they want to hold on to their own power. It’s pathetic. I’ve had enough.”
Kerr made the comments just before authorities confirmed the number dead at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, had climbed to 19 children and two adults. Kerr has been a longtime advocate for stricter gun control legislation. His father, Malcolm H. Kerr, president of the American University of Beirut, was assassinated by gunmen in 1984.
At PolitiFact, we have been fact-checking statements at least since 2013 about majority support for gun background checks, and have found them to be generally accurate, although support is typically lower than 90% among Republicans.
Background check legislation has stalled
Under U.S. law, federally licensed gun dealers, importers and manufacturers must run background checks for sales to unlicensed buyers. The law bans firearm transfers to anyone convicted of a serious crime or committed to a mental institution. But a private seller without a federal license doesn’t need to meet the same requirement.
Kerr’s statement referenced background check legislation that would have extended background checks to private sellers. The legislation allowed only for limited exceptions, such as if the firearm were a gift from a spouse. In March 2021, the House voted in favor of the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021, H.R. 8. But the bill never received a vote in the 50-50 Senate where Republicans have shown opposition to adding gun control laws. They couldn’t move to a vote which would need 60 senators.
The House also passed H.R. 1446, the Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2021. The bill would have expanded the time federal law enforcement would have to conduct background checks on unlicensed people from three days to 10 days before a gun could be transferred to the person’s possession. Senate Republicans blocked the bill.
Polls consistently show majority support for gun background checks
Polling expert Steven Smith at Washington University in St. Louis told us that “90% — or nearly 90% — support for background checks is a common finding in nationwide surveys.” While polls show majority support among Republicans, it is lower than 90%.
As an example, Smith pointed to a 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center that found 92% of Democrats and 70% of Republicans support background checks for private gun sales. Overall support was at 81%.
When other pollsters asked Americans if they supported background checks for all sales, they found similar numbers:
Quinnipiac in 2021 found 89% overall support, with support among 98% of Democrats and 84% of Republicans.
Morning Consult/Politico in 2021 found 84% support overall, including 91% of Democrats and 77% of Republicans.
ABC/Washington Post in 2019 found 89% support overall with support at 96% for Democrats and 83% for Republicans.
Gallup found 92% overall support in 2018, including 96% of Democrats and 86% of Republicans.
The wording for such questions can vary slightly from poll to poll.
In an April 2022 poll, The Economist/YouGov asked about requiring “criminal and mental background checks” for all gun buyers — a specific phrase we didn’t see regularly in all polls. It found 72% overall either strongly or somewhat favored, while 83% of Democrats and 68% of Republicans held that view.
Why the disconnect between what Americans tell pollsters and how Republican lawmakers vote? Part of the answer lies in who shows up to vote in primaries, as well as lobbying by groups that oppose gun restrictions.
“It is the people who are seen and heard by politicians that matter most,” Smith said. “In Republican primaries, anti-gun control voters are almost certainly a salient group that shapes the issue strategies of candidates.”
Another factor is the other responses that Americans give to pollsters about guns.
Frank Newport, Gallup’s senior scientist, wrote in 2021 that it appears Americans support new gun restrictions even though they are not necessarily convinced doing so will stop mass shootings.
A 2018 Pew Research poll showed that Americans were just as likely to say making it harder for people to obtain guns would make no difference in the number of mass shootings as they were to say such action would result in fewer mass shootings. A Gallup poll in 2017 found 58% of Americans believed that new gun laws would have little or no effect on mass shootings.
“In short, I think it is fair to say that Americans recognize that reducing gun deaths is going to require several approaches — increased controls on access to guns and increased focus on the background and mental state of those individuals who take lives using guns,” Newport wrote.
What polls may omit about Americans’ views on background checks
While people support background checks overall, their support seems to drop when they are asked about specific legislation.
The National Rifle Association has previously pointed to the results of background check voter referendums in Maine and Nevada in 2016 that showed lower support for background checks than the national polls suggest. In Maine, 52% of voters rejected a background check measure. In Nevada, a background check question just barely passed with about 50.5% of the vote.
The gist of the NRA’s argument is that when people are asked a generic question by a pollster, it leads to a different result than when they actually face a question on a ballot that could affect their own rights.
Pew Research Center found in 2013 that 81% of Republicans supported expanded background checks, but when asked if they supported a U.S. Senate bill that included such legislation, Republican support dropped to 57%.
”People may support background checks in general, but become more skeptical when gun rights groups highlight specific complications or unintended consequences that could arise when these laws are implemented,” Kristin Goss, professor of public policy and political science at Duke University, told us in 2020.
Also, it’s possible that some respondents who say they want background checks for all sales may not realize that it is not current federal law — a point backed up by a 2013 poll conducted at the behest of the Democratic National Committee. Of the 50% of people who said they preferred enforcement over new laws, 48% said they thought federal law prohibits gun show sales and private gun sales without background checks. Another 10% disclosed that they didn’t know the rules.
“Most people don’t have a very good grasp of what our gun laws are,” Goss said. “To be fair to Americans, gun laws are complicated and vary greatly state by state.”
Kerr said “90% of Americans, regardless of political party, want universal background checks.”
Polls during the past few years show overall support for gun background checks in the ballpark of 90%. Kerr suggested the statistic applied regardless of political party, and it clearly does for Democrats, who often support background checks at rates higher than 90%. But among Republicans, we found some polls suggesting their support is closer to the 80% range, slightly less than Kerr suggested. We rate this statement Mostly True.
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