The Media's Missing Context: Obama's Push To Expand Background Checks Is Wildly Popular With Gun Owners

After President Obama unveiled new executive orders aimed at reducing gun violence, a constant media theme has been that the proposals are deeply controversial. But are they? Or are media outlets providing a disjointed look by giving a skewed, Republican-friendly take on the issue by stressing conflict where very little exists?

A key component of Obama's initiative is to expand the pool of people who count as gun dealers, which would require more people to be licensed. That would mean more buyers being screened. It's the White House's concerted effort to bypass obstructionist Republicans to close the so-called “gun show loophole.”

News coverage has generally been good in terms of clearly detailing the specifics of the proposals. But the coverage falls down when it comes to the politics; when it comes to explaining why Obama has been forced to use his powers as chief executive to address gun violence. (Hint: It's because Republicans have purposefully made Congress dysfunctional.)

Too much of the coverage has also omitted the fact that expanding background checks is wildly popular with everyone, it seems, except Republican members of Congress and the NRA's board of directors.

Recent write-ups by NPR, Washington Post, CBS News, Wall Street Journal, and Reuters, among others, omitted any hard numbers regarding the wide, national support for background checks.

“Gun owners overwhelmingly support background checks,” Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, told the Center for American Progress last year. “And that includes gun owners who are Republicans and gun owners who are NRA members.”

By leaving out the context -- by leaving out the fact that 90 percent of Americans support background checks to cover all gun sales -- the press erroneously presents the Obama initiative as deeply controversial and deeply partisan.

But they're not. And it's worth noting that much of the existing polling showing vast support for expanded background checks has focused on the question of whether all gun sales should be subject to a background check, but Obama's proposal doesn't even go that far.

It's actually hard to find another high-profile public policy issue in the U.S. that enjoys as much bipartisan backing. The polling data is rather remarkable:

*90 percent of Americans support criminal background checks for all gun sales.

*83 percent of gun owners nationally support criminal background checks on all sales of firearms.

*72 percent of NRA members back them.

By often ignoring those findings, the press misreads the story.

For instance, Politico reported Obama will have “a tricky task” convincing “gun-owning Americans” to support his background check push. But that doesn't make sense because most gun-owning Americans already support background checks.

And by failing to distinguish the fact that the NRA and GOP politicians categorically object to any Obama attempt to address gun ownership, but most Americans, including most gun owners, do not.

That omission highlights an ongoing newsroom failure when covering the gun debate during the Obama years: whitewashing the GOP's radical obstruction, and especially the nearly unanimous opposition to the White House-backed gun bill in the wake of 2012 Newtown school gun massacre.

Here's how the Washington Post referred to it in a January 4 article [emphasis added]:

His administration failed to persuade lawmakers to approve tighter legislative controls on gun sales in 2013, in the wake of the December 2012 killings of 20 children at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

Added NPR: “Obama was stymied in his effort to promote gun control legislation three years ago in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.”

That's not quite accurate. What happened in 2013 is Obama persuaded a majority of lawmakers to pass a gun bill, including a handful of Republicans. But a hardcore minority of Republicans in the Senate refused to allow a vote on the issue.

Even though more than 90 percent of Americans supported the bill. Even though more than two dozen people had recently been gunned down in one day at an elementary school. Even though Obama had just become the first president since Dwight Eisenhower to win election and reelection with 51 percent of the vote or more and had made the gun bill a top legislative priority, Republicans still refused to even allow a vote on the background check bill.

Why did Republicans refuse? Because they didn't want to be seen giving the president a victory. That, according to Republican Sen. Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania, among the few who tried to help the White House fashion together a deal: “There were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it.”

Ignoring that crucial background information, this week we're told rather vaguely that Congress (not Republicans) “stymied” Obama on guns. The lack of context has produced real oddities.

From the Wall Street Journal:

A National Rifle Association spokeswoman said before the White House's announcement that the president had failed to pass his anti-gun agenda through Congress and now is defying the will of the people by relying on executive action.

Nine out of ten Republican senators in 2013 refused to allow a vote on a gun bill with overwhelming public support, but the NRA claims it's Obama who's “defying the will of the people”?

Some news coverage has gotten it right. For instance, during a CNN report Monday night, an on-screen graphic documented the polling data on the topic:  

And a USA Today article on Obama's initiative set aside space to note, “White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest pointed to recent polls showing 89% of Americans -- and 84% of gun owners -- support universal background checks.”

That's all it takes to provide the proper context. The press should at least do the minimum.