The Myth of the "90 Percent" Support for Failed Background Check Bill

We can't tell you precisely why several U.S. senators, including Jeff "Pond Scum" Flake, voted against a bill aimed at expanding background checks for gun purchases.

Sure, the powerful NRA likely had some influence. But how could anyone vote against something that 90 percent of Americans want?

One possible answer is that the skeptical senators knew the "90 percent" figure has always been soft. That's certainly true of Arizona, whose residents supported a general background check expansion by 70 percent, not 90.

See also: Jeff Flake Thinks His Popularity Is "Somewhere Just Below Pond Scum"

Nationwide, a Gallup poll taken a week after the Senate vote indicated that only 65 percent of Americans thought the Senate should have passed a bill to "expand background checks for gun purchases," with 29 percent saying the Senate should not have passed it.

That's much lower than 90 percent support, obviously.

Also interesting: The new poll showed that general support for an expanded background check law fell from 91 percent in mid-January to 83 percent.

Both the general question and the one asking about the failed Senate bill were light on details.

It seems reasonable to guess that if recent polls had asked specifically about the actual provisions of the Machin-Toomey bill, results lower than 90 percent -- or even 65 percent -- might have been obtained.

Gallup says that a minor wording change in the question may have played a role in reducing the perceived general support from 91 percent to 83 percent.

In January, Gallup asked the public if they supported a law that would "require criminal background checks for all gun sales." This month, the wording was "require background checks for all gun purchases."

The apparent reduction in support could also be that the bill's failure "deflated" Americans' support for it, Gallup says.

But if a minor change in wording was responsible, it seems clear that different verbiage could have played havoc on the poll numbers.

"The bill is 49 pages long: Does the 90 percent relate to the 49 pages of law that they're talking about?" asks Alan Korwin, local gun-rights advocate and author. "They're lying to your face on the surface of it."

Korwin also suggested that if the polls would show that Americans are highly skeptical that expanded background checks would do much to curb gun violence. He points out that a self-reported national survey of police in March showed that the vast majority cops believe that President Obama's gun-control suggestions would have no effect on their safety.

Most Americans may well believe that expanded background checks are a good thing; some of the senators who voted "no," like Flake, saw their popularity ratings drop.

But did 90 percent of Americans really want this bill? Apparently not.

In fact, it's probably impossible to get nine out of 10 Americans to agree on the specific details of anything.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.