The Vast Majority of Americans Support Universal Background Checks. Why Doesn’t Congress?

The article below is a product of the Harvard Political Review. Review articles and viewpoints expressed are written and edited exclusively by Review undergraduate students, not the staff of Harvard's Institute of Politics.
Victor Agbafe

A gun show in Houston.

The increase in partisanship in the U.S. over the last several decades has made it much harder for legislators to compromise and enact change on a variety of issues. One of these issues is gun control, where Americans are split along ideological, geographical, and socioeconomic lines. This divide makes it extremely tough for legislators to enact legislation to curb the multitudes of suicides, murders, and mass shootings due to gun violence. But while there exists a lot of disagreement over many gun control policies, there is one that Americans in wide margins agree on and that is the necessity of universal background checks. The U.S. Congress, however, does not, and in 2013 decided not to follow the course of action supported by an overwhelming majority of American people by voting down a proposal by Senators Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) expanding the background check system. Two factors best can answer this conundrum: the expansive influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and a deep-seated fear in a faction of the electorate of any federal regulations on guns.

The NRA is one of the most powerful interest groups in American politics due to the millions it spends on campaign contributions and its cult-like role for its fervent members and voters. Additionally, the NRA spends more money lobbying than its rivals on the other side of the issue, most notably the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Under current federal law, individuals do not have to obtain a background check when buying guns online or from private sellers at a gun show. According to the Gun Control Act of 1968, individuals qualified as private sellers if they sold four or less guns per year, but in 1986, the Firearms Owners Protection Act of 1986 more amended this definition to refer to people who don’t rely on selling guns as their principal source of income. According to a 2015 study by the Harvard Injury Control Center, when adding the 34 percent of gun owners who bought their guns but didn’t go through a background check and the two thirds of those who obtained their guns from a transfer, such as a gift, inheritance, or swap from friends, about 40 percent of those who obtain firearms don’t have to go through a background check.


Given these statistics, a universal background check seems like a solution to the issue of gun violence in the United States. In fact, according to a Public Policy Polling survey, 83 percent of gun owners support expanded background checks on sales of all firearms, including 72 percent of all NRA members. As a result, it would seem strange that the NRA has not come out in full support of universal background checks. One explanation is that the NRA only represents about 5 million of the 105 million Americans who own guns, which means they may have a skewed representation of gun owners. Even this explanation, however, doesn’t suffice, since the same survey found that 72 percent of NRA members also supported universal background checks. Regardless of how representative the NRA and its leaders are of gun owners and their own members, they are the most powerful gun lobby and one of the most powerful interest groups in general so they have a huge impact on any discussion of gun legislation.

Culture is also something to take into account when looking at the way some Americans see the issue of universal background checks on gun ownership. At a January 7 town hall on guns in America, moderator Anderson Cooper pointed out that some truly believe there is a “conspiracy to take away guns.” In an op-ed for, Tara Setmayer argued that some gun owners distrust the president because he “points to the United Kingdom and Australia as examples of countries he admires for their handling of gun issues,” countries whose policies “amounted to gun confiscation programs.” Many gun owners fear that universal background checks could be a slippery slope that lead to such gun confiscation. In fact, 48 percent of those surveyed in a Quinnipiac University Poll in 2013 indicated that they believed the government could use background checks to confiscate legally-owned guns. This fear could possibly be a result of our history, as the Second Amendment is seen by some as not just guaranteeing a right to obtain firearms but also as a doctrine representing the spirit of the American Revolution and as a way to keep at bay potential state terror. Thus, in addition to the influence of the NRA, there is also a grassroots influence of everyday Americans who, even while indicating a support for background checks, have a skeptical view of expanded government regulation regarding guns.

As a nation we are divided on many political issues because of regional, economic, and social differences. Yet universal background checks seem to be one of the few issues that transcend those differences, which is why it is so frustrating that it cannot seem to pass in the U.S. Congress. What we must see, though, is that there are differences in the way powerful interest groups and everyday people see the possible implications of such policies. Only by understanding these differences would can we come closer to an acceptable compromise on such a hot-button issue.

Image Credit: M&R Glasgow/Flickr