April 11, 2013

Larry Pratt, the executive director of the Gun Owners of America, appeared on Wolf Blitzer’s “Situation Room” to debate the struggle on Capitol Hill over gun-related legislation stemming from the Newtown massacre. Gun-rights advocates have had some rough times on CNN’s air, and Pratt was clearly ready for some pointed questions. He got them.

Blitzer was curious about Pratt’s plans to go after any senators who might support expanding background checks for gun sales. The conversation hovered over Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), the lawmaker who has been key in helping overcome Senate gridlock on background checks. Would Pratt seek to unseat Toomey, “even though 90 percent of the American people are with him,” wondered Blitzer, citing polls that show a 9 to 1 margin among Americans in favor of expanding background checks. Some back-and-forth followed:

PRATT: I think we already had a discussion about how credible those polls are.

BLITZER: Those polls are very credible. These are national polls. The CNN/ORC poll is very credible. CBS News poll. Quinnipiac University poll.

Then comes a bunch of crosstalk, in which Pratt takes issue with results showing “that a huge majority of Gun Owners of America members and NRA members” presumably support the expansion of background checks. “Your polls are hokum,” charged Pratt. The findings to which Pratt was apparently referring are summed up in the chart below, which is embedded in a Washington Post post by Scott Clement:


Pratt wants to know where the media get this information. The Gun Owners of America, he tells the Erik Wemple Blog, has checked with its own members in an unscientific poll and received an “overwhelming response.” Only 4 percent of members support universal background checks, he says. The massive gap between that number and the numbers in the graph above, Pratt argues, suggests something amiss in the polling of the mainstream media. “If that can’t be done right, then what else is wrong with the poll?” he asks, casting doubt on whether 90 percent of Americans really do favor all this background-check stuff.

Clement, survey analyst at Capital Insight, The Post’s independent polling outfit, says, “There are two quality published surveys that ask respondents about their support for background checks and their membership in the NRA, and both found similar results: overwhelming support for extending background checks.”

The polling of the NRA was also invoked by Pratt in his discussion with Blitzer. Back in January, the NRA released a survey of 1,000 members conducted by polling outfit OnMessage Inc. It asked respondents how they felt about the following initiative, among others: “A new law that establishes a national gun database and requires all gun owners to register their firearms with the federal government.” A mere 5.9 percent said they supported such a measure. Now, that’s not a background-check question per se, but the OnMessage Inc. questionnaire doesn’t appear to ask the background-check question straight up.

Wes Anderson, a partner with OnMessage Inc., says: “In the membership surveys that we’ve done for the NRA, there are very serious concerns about what an expanded background check looks like.” That said, Anderson would not say what the internal research says about support for expanded background checks among NRA members. “I’m not going to get into the specific questions on those,” he says.

So here’s what we have to rebut the mainstream media’s findings: A Gun Owners of America study that the organization concedes is unscientific, plus an NRA survey that doesn’t put the background-check question directly to its members. May the debate continue.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.