Skip to main content

Why the NRA fights background checks

By John J. Donohue, Special to CNN
April 10, 2013 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
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
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2334 GMT (0734 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT