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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

NRA Misrepresents Police Survey, Legislation

On the day the Senate voted down a series of gun control bills, the National Rifle Association made false and misleading claims in opposing a measure to expand background checks.

  • Online ads from the NRA wrongly claimed that “80% of police say background checks will have no effect” on violent crime. The survey cited in the ads by the NRA says nothing of the sort.
  • Before and after the vote, the NRA said the measure “would have criminalized certain private transfers of firearms” and required “lifelong friends, neighbors and some family members to get federal government permission” to exchange guns. The measure didn’t expand background checks to such private transfers. It applied to sales by unlicensed individuals at gun shows and on the Internet.

Survey Doesn’t Say That

The NRA’s online ad monopolized the Washington Post‘s homepage, filling the right-hand side of computer screens, on April 17, the day the Senate took up several votes on gun measures, including a bipartisan one to expand background checks.

The ad, along with a video version, urged readers to “tell your senator to listen to police” instead of President Obama and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The Senate vote held late that afternoon fell six votes short of the 60 needed to move the bipartisan measure forward. If anyone did follow the NRA’s directive and call their senator, it was under false pretenses.

NRA ad

The ad includes an image of a police badge with a reference to a March survey by a group called PoliceOne.com, a news and resource site for law enforcement officers. The survey wasn’t a scientific poll that aimed to gather responses from a random sample of the nation’s police officers. Rather, it was a self-selected Internet poll, in which more than 15,000 of PoliceOne.com’s 400,000 registered members chose to respond, either because of email solicitation or a link to the survey on the PoliceOne.com website.

And there was no question asking whether “background checks” would have an “effect on violent crime.”

In fact, the survey methodology says that a question on criminal background checks was removed “due to flaws with the question details, highlighted by a handful of users.” We spoke with Jon Hughes, vice president of content for the Praetorian Group, which owns PoliceOne.com, about the NRA ads’ claim. He told us he was “unclear where that came from specifically.” He said that the question that was dropped — because of “an error in how it was phrased” — couldn’t be the source either, as the data didn’t match the claim. Hughes said fact-check articles by the Washington Post and Slate.com on the ad “did a pretty good job of analyzing the data to try to determine where that claim came from.”

We agree with our fact-checking colleagues that the NRA likely derived its false claim from this survey question: “Do you think that a federal law prohibiting private, non-dealer transfers of firearms between individuals would reduce violent crime?” Nearly 80 percent of respondents answered “no.” The question says nothing about requiring background checks, which would be much different than prohibiting private transfers, period. Hughes told us that there was no intent to refer to background checks without actually mentioning them in that question. “We would have said that,” he said, “if that’s what we were aiming for.”

But the question is similar to what the NRA has said in opposing the legislation on background checks. We asked the NRA’s media office for its support for the ad’s claim, but we have not yet received a response.

The PoliceOne.com survey does include some information on background checks, but nothing that pertains to the NRA claim. As a press release from PoliceOne accurately says, “[r]espondents were more split on background checks.” The survey asked, “Would requiring mental health background checks on prospective buyers in all gun sales from federally-licensed dealers reduce instances of mass shooting incidents?” Forty-five percent said no, and 31 percent said yes. The remainder were unsure.

The survey also asked, “What would help most in preventing large scale shootings in public? Choose the selection you feel would have the most impact.” Fourteen percent chose “improved background screening to determine mental wellness of gun purchasers” as having the most impact. Above that: “more permissive concealed carry policies for civilians,” 28.8 percent; “more aggressive institutionalization for mentally ill persons,” 19.6 percent; and “more armed guards/paid security personnel,” 15.8 percent.

NRA Twists Legislation

Both before and after the Senate vote on the background check measure, the NRA distorted what the proposed legislation would do to gun sales and transfers between friends or family members.

Before the vote, Chris Cox, the executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, said in a letter to the Senate that the group opposed any amendments that would “criminalize the private transfer of firearms through an expansion of background checks. This includes the misguided ‘compromise’ proposal drafted by Senators Joe Manchin, Pat Toomey and Chuck Schumer.”

But the measure only called for expanding background checks for sales by unlicensed individuals at gun shows and online. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, one of the sponsors of the background check legislation, criticized the NRA for telling people that it would criminalize private transfers. Manchin, who received an A rating from the NRA last year, told MSNBC that the NRA’s claim “is a lie.” He added, “I would hope they would correct that.”

The bill — the “Public Safety and Second Amendment Rights Protection Act,” which Manchin introduced with Republican Sen. Pat Toomey — would have prohibited unlicensed persons from selling guns at gun shows or over the Internet. Such sellers could complete such transactions, but they would have to visit a licensed dealer and have that dealer run a background check before the sale could be finalized. Transfers between family members are specifically exempt from the requirement. (See page 21 of the full bill, or page 4 of this breakdown of the bill by Manchin.) The bill goes into detail about which family members would be exempt, including spouses, parents, children, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, spouses of all of the above, and first cousins “if the transferor does not know or have reasonable cause to believe that the transferee is prohibited from receiving or possessing a firearm under Federal, State, or local law.”

An NRA member, Manchin said on the Senate floor before the vote that the NRA’s alerts on his legislation were “filled with misinformation.” He said the measure extends background checks to commercial sales at gun shows and online. “Private sales will not require background checks.”

Manchin explained: “You can loan your hunting rifle to your buddy without any new restrictions or requirements. Or you can give or sell a gun to your brother, your neighbor, your coworker without a background check. You can post a gun for sale on the cork bulletin board at your church or your job without a background check. ”

Despite Manchin’s protests, there was no correction coming from the NRA. After the Senate vote, the NRA released a statement that reiterated its stance, saying the measure “would have criminalized certain private transfers of firearms between honest citizens, requiring lifelong friends, neighbors and some family members to get federal government permission to exercise a fundamental right or face prosecution.”

Sure, if these “lifelong friends, neighbors” and third cousins wanted to sell each other guns at gun shows or online, they would indeed have to get a licensed dealer to run a background check first, according to the legislation. But that’s a lot of caveats that the NRA statement conveniently leaves out.

On April 18, the morning after the vote, Manchin called the NRA’s claim about private transfers “disingenuous” at a Wall Street Journal breakfast. “Now, if you have a loving relationship with your family member and your best friend, and you’ve got to sell your gun on the Internet, you better check that relationship.”

— Lori Robertson