Skip to main content

Why the NRA fights background checks

By John J. Donohue, Special to CNN
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Wed April 10, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In a new poll, 91% of Americans say they support universal background checks
  • John Donohue: Besides criminals and the insane, gun manufacturers oppose them
  • He says the manufacturers call the shots at the NRA, and they care about profits
  • Donohue: Gun groups try to scare people by talking about "logistical nightmare" of checks

Editor's note: On Wednesday, CNN TV and CNN.com are taking an in-depth look at "Guns Under Fire: A CNN Special Report on Background Checks." John J. Donohue is C. Wendell and Edith M. Carlsmith professor of law at Stanford Law School and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

(CNN) -- In a new poll, Americans indicated that they support universal background checks by a margin of 91% to 8%. Even in households with guns, the margin was an overwhelming 88% to 11%.

"We think it's reasonable to provide mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show. No loopholes anywhere for anyone." Did President Barack Obama say that? No, that's from an advertisement taken out by the NRA in USA Today in 1999.

But a more powerful NRA today is in no mood to follow the slogan of their "be reasonable" ad campaign of 14 years ago. This relatively small group -- the NRA boasts that it has 4.5 million members, which is peanuts compared to the roughly 40 million AARP members -- might have the political power to pull it off.

John J. Donohue
John J. Donohue

Federal law prohibits selling guns to felons or the mentally ill. Background checks are the only way to enforce that law. So, besides criminals and the insane, who could possibly oppose universal background checks?

Gun manufacturers.

Background checks on gun sales: How do they work?

They are the ones who call the shots at the NRA, and they are the most important people in the opposition. The manufacturers don't want anything that interferes with total gun sales and profits.

Background checks would impose a minor burden on gun transactions, but more importantly, limit the size of the market (and therefore, profits) in two ways.

The direct loss of profit comes because closing the current gaping loophole in the background check system will shut off sales to criminals and the mentally ill who are effectively free to buy all the guns they want at gun shows and through private transactions.

But there is also an indirect loss of profit: Cutting off sales to the mentally ill and criminals will reduce crime and thereby reduce the public's demand for guns for self-protection.

Sen.: Background checks 'common ground'
Background checks 'kneejerk reaction'?

The gun manufacturers saw gun sales plummet during the dark days of the Clinton administration when crime dropped sharply every year. The 42% drop in the murder rate from 1993 to 2000 was a nightmare for gun sellers. Nothing scares the NRA as much as a sense of calm and safety in the public.

Opinion: The government wants your gun rights

What about gun owners? Do they have concerns about universal background checks? If one believes the recent poll that only 8% of the population and only 11% of those in household with guns oppose these checks, then not really.

But the same poll shows that the NRA has managed to convince a lot of Americans that universal background checks might lead to gun confiscation. This, no doubt, increases some gun owners' fears.

Amazingly, the poll found that in response to the question -- "Do you believe that if there are background checks for all gun purchases, the government will or will not use that information in the future to confiscate legally owned guns?" -- 48% said there will be confiscation. Quite frankly, this is delusional.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



If, when only 8% of Americans oppose the policy, you can't get a law that is designed to keep criminals and the insane from buying guns because of the power of the gun lobby, you certainly aren't going to get anything like confiscation when there would be massive opposition.

Why is this so hard? The disconnect on background checks

Moreover, even in some unimaginable world in which you could get gun confiscation, universal background checks would make no difference -- there are about 300 million guns in America with no need to go through any background check. Confiscation would be overturned in court in any event, since it is now prohibited by the Constitution.

Some gun owners presumably just don't want to be bothered by any additional regulation of guns, but background checks would be a minor inconvenience for anyone outside remote rural areas. There are also those who think background checks might expose us to tyrannous attack from our own government or perhaps even a foreign government that the U.S. military can't defeat but armed citizens could fend off. But again, putting that much confidence in arming criminals and the insane seems more than a bit strange.

Despite the fact that many other countries have similar requirements (and yes, much lower rates of murder and mayhem), gun groups in our country have raised alarmist concerns about the "logistical nightmare" of background checks for private sales. One of my favorites was:

What is a licensed retailer to do in the event of a "double denial" (both the private party buyer and seller are denied).

We should be so lucky to get the gun out of the hands of two illegitimate possessors.

In fact, the only argument for opposing gun background checks is that you believe the U.S. is already so gun-saturated and current gun owners are so reckless about allowing access to their guns by prohibited parties, that even if they can't buy them, the criminals and insane will get their hands on guns in any event.

In such a world, there is no benefit from background checks to offset the costs of running the system. I hope we are not there yet, although that would be nirvana for the NRA.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John J. Donohue.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT