90 percent of Americans want expanded background checks on guns. Why isn’t this a political slam dunk?

April 3, 2013

Nine in 10 Americans support expanding background checks on gun purchases in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, an extraordinary level of agreement on a political issue and a finding that's been duplicated in nearly every major public poll.

Surveys show broad support spans gun owners and non-gun owners alike, Democrats and Republicans, and even among members of the National Rifle Association, whose leadership is leading efforts to spike the measure from pending legislation.

President Obama has made a point of citing wide support in polls for expanding background checks, yet key senators have been unable to find a workable plan for near-universal background checks. The provision is President Obama's last, best chances to change gun laws in the wake of the Newtown, Conn. shootings last year.

How rare is it that a policy proposal that has support from 90 percent of the public doesn't become law? A search of the  Washington Post's polling archives and surveys by other organizations finds that Americans almost never voice this level of consensus on issues, and when they do, they often get what they want.

Here's a sampling of other "90 percent" issues

* Solar/wind power: 87 percent of Americans supported government development of more solar and wind power in a 2010 Washington Post-ABC News poll. Such funding was boosted by the 2009 economic stimulus bill.

* Life of mother/abortion: 87 percent said abortion should be permitted if the mother's life is in danger, according to the 2012 General Social Survey. Abortion laws since Roe v. Wade have typically allowed such abortions, and protecting the life of the mother has been a key push back against stricter laws.

* Stronger borders: 80 percent support stricter border control to try and reduce illegal immigration in a newly released Post-ABC poll. Spending on border control has increased every year since 1992, with a particular uptick since 2006.

There are very few other areas where the public is so united as a 2011 Pew Research Center report noted. Some hint mainly at wishful thinking or broad platitudes.  Eighty percent of people agree with the statement that they are "very patriotic"; 90 percent feel it's their duty as a citizen to always vote; and 90 percent admire people who get rich by working hard.

So why is Congress struggling to find common ground on an issue where nearly all Americans agree? One key reason is the potential for electoral retribution from the NRA. The group has instilled fear among some key senators that voting for background checks would have political consequences, the Post's Philip Rucker and Ed O'Keefe report.

Another factor, argues political scientist Jonathan Bernstein, is that few Americans are taking to the streets to demand universal background checks. Ninety percent of people answering a phone survey the same way is not the same as hordes of voters protesting in the streets or badgering their congressmen.

Gunspoliticalactivism

The lopsided level of activism was clear in a January Pew Research poll, where respondents who prioritized gun rights were more than four times as likely as those backing gun control to donate money to an organization that takes a position on gun policy. More than

four in 10 gun rights supporters (42 percent) reported participating in at least one type of political activism on the issue, compared with 25 percent of those prioritizing gun control.

Activist groups supporting gun restrictions -- notably the Michael Bloomberg-led Mayors' Against Illegal Guns -- have tried to change this dynamic. They promise to bring the fight over gun laws to the electoral battlefield, supporting candidates who agree with them and opposing those who don't.

But the fact that Congress is struggling to pass a law with near unprecedented support -- and that popular proposals such as bans on assault weapons and high-capacity clips have been essentially taken off the table -- indicates they are still losing the battle to convince lawmakers that gun restrictions are a political winner.

Clement is a pollster with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media.

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