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Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman February 27, 2018

Do majority of NRA members support background checks for guns?

Some lawmakers are pushing for changes to gun laws including universal background checks following the fatal mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

That includes U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who drew attention after the Las Vegas massacre in October when he announced he would donate to gun control groups roughly $20,000 that the NRA’s political action committee gave him over the years. Ryan received an A grade from the NRA earlier in his career but later broke from the group.

"Seventy to 80 percent of NRA members support a universal background check," Ryan said on CNN’s New Day Feb. 20, days after the shooting in South Florida that left 17 people dead.

Polls have consistently showed broad support for a universal background check. National polls in 2016 and 2017 found between 84 and 94 percent of respondents supported background checks. But what about NRA members?

What NRA members say about a universal background check

While federal law requires background checks for sales from federally licensed dealers, unlicensed, private sellers are not required to conduct background checks — although states can create their own laws.

Some gun control advocates want a nationwide standard to close loopholes.

Ryan’s spokesman cited a 2015 poll of gun owners by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic polling firm, conducted on behalf of two liberal groups: MoveOn.org Civic Action and the Center for American Progress. The poll surveyed 816 gun owners.

According to the poll, 24 percent of the respondents identified themselves as NRA members. That means of the total of 816 gun owners, 196 self-identified as NRA members.

Of all 816 gun owners, 83 percent responded that they supported a criminal background check for everyone who wants to buy a firearm.

For the 196 who said they were NRA members, the poll showed that 72 percent supported background checks.

The margin of error for the NRA sample is 7 percentage points, said Jim Williams, an analyst for Public Policy Polling.

"Given that the support for background checks among the NRA subsample is so overwhelming, it’s still far outside the margin of error for that subset," he said.

We also found an additional poll that included NRA members taking a position on background checks.

Pew Research Center conducted a poll of 3,930 U.S. adults, including 1,269 gun owners, in March and April 2017. The unweighted sample size in the survey included 262 respondents who identified as NRA members.

The poll included a breakdown of replies from Republican gun owners who were and were not members of the NRA. The poll showed based on weighted data that 52 percent of NRA members favored background checks for private gun sales compared with 75 percent of nonmembers.

PolitiFact has previously looked at polls as far back as 2013 that found majority support among NRA members or households where someone was a member of the NRA.

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For example, a poll done by Johns Hopkins University and conducted online among 2,703 adults — including 169 respondents who identified as a member of the NRA — through GfK Knowledge Networks. The poll found that 74 percent of NRA members supported requiring background checks for all gun sales. (The margin of error was 7 percentage points.)

After our 2015 fact-check of a claim related to that poll, NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker contacted PolitiFact contending that the poll could not accurately survey NRA members because only the NRA has access to the list of current, dues-paying members. It is common practice in polling to ask respondents to identify whether they are members of, for example, a political party or other group. The NRA didn’t respond for this fact-check.

We also previously looked at a poll by Republican pollster Frank Luntz in 2012 commissioned by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group. That poll showed 74 percent of respondents who identified as NRA members favored background checks. The poll included 945 gun owners, half of whom said they were current or lapsed members of the NRA and the others non-NRA members.

What polling experts said about the polls

Janine Parry, director of the Arkansas Poll and a professor at the University of Arkansas, said that the polls do not reflect a large enough sample of NRA members to reach the conclusion that 70 to 80 percent of NRA members support background checks.

While it’s tempting to take a national sample and try to drill down, when looking at a smaller subset such as NRA members "you end up generalizing and that can be dangerous," she said.

Ideally, a poll would include somewhere between 750 and 1,000 NRA members, she said.

"You would need an independent polling organization to either oversample NRA members or have a big enough national sample to get you to at least 500, but preferably closer to 750 NRA members who can stand as a sample on their own," she said.

We interviewed some polling experts who said that additional polls would help shed more light on the views of NRA members and that there are caveats about these polls’ methodologies.

Polling expert Steven Smith, a professor of social sciences and political science at Washington University in St. Louis, told PolitiFact that the smaller the actual subgroup in the national population, the lower the precision and the larger the margin of error.

However, if several polls show a majority of NRA members favor background checks, that increases the confidence in the findings.

Some of our polling experts raised some criticisms about methodology.

Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Polling Center, said he is dubious of any Interactive Voice Response (IVR) polling as the one done by Public Policy Polling.

"They have incredibly low response rates and there is evidence that only the most politically motivated people really want to talk to a computer about their opinions," he said.

Williams, of Public Policy Polling, defended the methodology and said IVR polling can cut down on social desirability bias — people telling a human questioner the answer they think they are "supposed" to say.

Our ruling

Ryan said that "70 to 80 percent of NRA members support a universal background check."

Ryan is citing a poll from Public Policy Polling, conducted in 2015 for liberal groups. That poll found that among the respondents who said they were NRA members, the poll showed that 72 percent supported background checks. Other polls we looked at showed that between 52 and 74 percent of NRA members supported background checks.

These polls are imperfect because they include small samples of NRA members, but they all suggest a majority of NRA members support background checks. New polling of larger numbers of NRA members would shed more light on the views of NRA members on background checks.

With all that in mind, we rate this statement Mostly True.

Our Sources

CNN New Day, Interview with U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, Feb. 20, 2018

Cleveland.com, "Rep. Tim Ryan gives his NRA donations to gun control groups," Oct. 9, 2017

Columbus Dispatch, "Ryan gives NRA campaign cash to gun control groups," Oct. 6, 2017

Center for American Progress press release, "Gun Owners Overwhelmingly Support Background Checks, See NRA as Out of Touch, New Poll Finds," Nov. 17, 2015

Public Policy Polling, Poll, 2015

Pew Research Center, "America’s Complex Relationship With Guns," June 22, 2017

Pew Research Center, "Among gun owners, NRA members have a unique set of views and experiences," July 5, 2017

Everytown for Gun Safety, "2012 Frank Luntz National Poll of Gun Owners and NRA Members," Oct. 20, 2012

Pew Research Center, "Section 2: Opinions of Gun Owners, Non-Gun Owners," March 12, 2013

PolitiFact, "Do 90% of Americans support background checks for all gun sales?" Oct. 3, 2017

PolitiFact, "Lee Leffingwell says polls show 90 percent of Americans and 74 percent of NRA members support criminal background checks before all gun buys," April 4, 2013

PolitiFact, "Rep. Jackie Speier says poll shows NRA members believe all gun buyers face background checks," Jan. 23, 2013

PolitiFact, "How trustworthy are the polls, more than a year after the 2016 election?" Jan. 3, 2018

Interview, Michael Zetts, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, Feb. 20, 2018

Interview, Molly Rohal, Pew Research Center spokeswoman, Feb. 20, 2018

Interview, Kim Parker, Pew Research Center director of social trends research, Feb. 20, 2018

Interview, Kyle Epstein, Center for American Progress spokesman, Feb. 20, 2018

Interview, Steven Smith, Washington University political science professor, Feb. 20, 2018

Interview, Jim Williams, Public Policy Polling analyst, Feb. 20, 2018

Interview, Kathleen Frankovic, public opinion research consultant, Feb. 21, 2018

Interview, Andrew E. Smith, UNH Survey Center, Feb. 22, 2018

Interview, Janine Parry, director of the Arkansas Poll and a professor at the University of Arkansas, Feb. 27, 2018

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