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9 in 10 Americans support universal background checks for gun purchases

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Gun show
David Petronis of Mechanicville, N.Y., upper left, owner of a gun store, spoke with a potential customer during the annual New York State Arms Collectors Association Albany Gun Show earlier this year in Albany, N.Y.
AP Photo/Philip Kamrass

Ninety-one percent of American voters support universal background checks for gun purchases, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll.

Read the post-show takeaway

Despite popular support, President Barack Obama has had trouble getting support in Congress for expanded background checks. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced on Monday that he was joining a group of 13 senators who have pledged to block any gun legislation in the Senate.

At the same time, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has teamed up with Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., to engineer a deal that would expand background checks to all gun purchases, with an exception for gun transfers between family members and some hunters.

Law Prof. Adam Winkler opposes making such exceptions. He writes in the Los Angeles Times:

In a bow to the gun lobby, Obama has endorsed an exception to universal background checks for transfers of firearms within families. The argument is that a father who wants to pass on to his son a beloved rifle shouldn't be burdened by having to conduct a background check. And family members, who are most at risk, should have every incentive to refuse to give a felon or dangerously mentally ill person a gun.

The data, however, suggest the opposite. It's precisely those closest to a prohibited purchaser we should trust the least. In studies of prison inmates, nearly 35% obtained their guns from friends and family members — the largest single source of criminals' guns.

Studies also show that many "straw purchases" — in which a person buys a gun on behalf of a person who cannot legally do so — are made by spouses, girlfriends and other close friends. Personal relationships often make it difficult for someone asked to buy a gun to say no.

Every gun transfer, including those within families, should require a background check. No exceptions. No loopholes.

Winkler joined The Daily Circuit, along with Washington Post White House correspondent Philip Rucker and the National Review's Jill Lawrence, to discuss the politics of universal background checks.

THE TAKEAWAY: Newtown shootings have changed the political landscape.

As the story of a possible Senate compromise on background checks developed, the conversation focused on the changes that had made such a deal possible. In a word: Newtown.

"There's a lot of people who vote on the pro-gun side," said Winkler. "But very few people who vote are single-issue voters on the gun-control side. So maybe some in Congress or the Senate are determining that their refusal to support any gun control, or even allow a vote on gun control, would actually cost them in the next election because maybe Newtown has changed the political dynamic such that there are going to be some single-issue, pro-gun-control voters.

"Everyone was surprised by the reaction to Newtown and what Newtown has done to the gun debate. Remember, during the first four years of the Obama administration, the president wouldn't even touch gun control. In fact, the Brady organization, which is one of the leading gun-control organizations in America, gave him an 'F' rating for his support of gun control."

Rucker said the Republican opposition to background checks, especially the threatened filibuster, was growing politically risky.

"I think what happened in the last few days, since this group of Republicans started threatening to filibuster the gun bill, is the optics really became bad for them," he explained. "You had President Obama in Connecticut Monday night saying, "Just let them vote. Just have a vote." And this whole crowd of several thousand people in the basketball arena started chanting, "We want a vote." And the idea that Republican senators would block a vote on the bill, wouldn't even say yes or no — that just became too difficult for them to move forward with."

Lawrence also traced the change to Newtown.

"The Newtown shooting was the fourth time [during Obama's presidency] there was a massacre. The first three times, nothing happened," she said. "The fourth time was apparently the straw that broke the camel's back for him. There's now all kinds of political action committees. Gabby Giffords has one, Michael Bloomberg has one. Everyone's been energized, I think in part because the president is leading. ... And some of these public opinion polls on background checks are also a real shot in the arm for some of these groups, because they're with public opinion. They may not have the intensity or even the money yet on their side, but they've got public opinion."

Winkler suggested that, until now, people who supported gun control have been unable to coalesce around issues or candidates. "This could be the real major change from Newtown," he said, "even if nothing gets passed through Congress. Changing the dynamics of the gun debate and gun politics could be the most significant impact. We've seen over the last 30 years or so a lot of single-issue pro-gun, anti-gun-control voters. We haven't seen a lot of single issue pro-gun-control voters. In part the problem is there's really no money being spent to organize those people, to make the issue apparent to them in contested elections and to put it front and center in people's minds.

"Now it looks like Mayor Bloomberg and Gabrielle Giffords are going to start putting some money there. Of course, in a democracy, having some money to put behind a political issue is always useful. But at the end of the day you really do need the voters. And people on the gun-control side, if you support gun control, you have got to vote gun control. Otherwise you're not going to get any new laws passed anytime soon."

As if to prove his point, Kate in North Oaks called to express fervent support for tighter gun-control measures. Kerri Miller asked her whether she voted or donated in support of her point of view.

"To be honest, I don't know where to spend my money on the non-gun stuff," she said. "If they throw a protest in front of the capitol in St. Paul, trust me, I'll be there."

Here's the ad put out by Bloomberg's PAC, Mayors Against Illegal Guns Action Fund:

READ MORE ABOUT GUN LEGISLATION:

Why Gay Marriage Is Getting Political Traction (And Why Gun Control Isn't). Article by Jill Lawrence: "Demographics offers one answer. Acceptance of gay marriage in the political world is being driven in part by polling that shows overwhelming support for it among young people. By contrast, at least two polls this spring show there is no corresponding generation gap on guns."

Mark Kelly Says 'Failure Is Not An Option' on Universal Background Checks. Gabby Giffords' husband is doing everything in his power to get gun legislation through Congress. (ABC News)

Delaware passes new gun control law, requires universal background checks. Delaware is one of several states currently debating gun legislation. (The Review)

Improving gun background checks could be costly. "The [Minnesota] Senate Judiciary Committee is trying to determine how much it will cost to dig through old court records for mental health commitment information to send to the national database of people who can't own a gun." (AP)