Gun-control and gun-rights advocates are locked in a fierce dispute over what rank-and-file National Rifle Association members and average gun owners think about President Obama's gun-control proposals, with the NRA sharply rebutting numbers purporting to show that its members and gun owners are largely receptive to new laws.
According to polling conducted by the gun-control advocacy group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, whose co-chairman is New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, 74 percent of NRA members support requiring a criminal background check on anyone purchasing a gun.
But the NRA says that is not the case.
"Mayor Bloomberg's claims that gun owners are divided are totally false," said Chris Cox, the group's chief lobbyist. "It is nothing more than an attempt by anti-gun activists to further their long-standing political agenda."
In response to such figures, the NRA recently released its own survey -- touting it as "the only legitimate survey of NRA members in existence." The gun-rights group noted that the mayors' group and other recent surveys did not have access to NRA membership rolls and thus their polls could not reliably sample its membership.
The poll of 1,000 NRA members shows that 89 percent oppose a ban on military-style, semi-automatic weapons and 92 percent oppose a ban on magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition. The group says the numbers prove that members are "united in their desire for Washington to focus on keeping firearms from the mentally ill and to reject unconstitutional gun control measures that infringe on Second Amendment rights."
But Sen. Christopher Murphy, Connecticut Democrat, said gun owners and NRA members generally agree that strengthening background checks is a good idea.
Several polls conducted this year -- from Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, Quinnipiac University and Pew -- all found that at least 84 percent of gun owners (or in Quinnipiac's case, "households with a gun") support universal background checks.
"The NRA and its lobby -- especially when it comes to the debate we're having right now in Washington -- is badly out of step with the people that the NRA claims to represent," Mr. Murphy said on a conference call Monday.
The debate has heated up for both sides since the shooting deaths of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December. President Obama repeatedly said in his State of the Union address that victims of gun violence deserve a vote from Congress on his gun control proposals, which include universal background checks and bans on so-called assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
In a response to the address, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre tried to make clear that the group does not favor universal checks.
"At first glance, it sounds like a reasonable, good idea," Mr. LaPierre said. "But there's nothing universal about it. Think about it. Criminals won't be part of their universe. They'll steal their guns or get them and everything else they want on the black market."
But Mr. Murphy, who was the congressman representing Newtown and senator-elect when the shootings occurred, pointed to congressional testimony from Mr. LaPierre in 1999 expressing his support for universal background checks, with "no loopholes anywhere for anyone."
Sandy Froman, who served as the NRA's president from 2005 to 2007, acknowledged on CNN earlier this month that the group has indeed changed its position, citing the failure of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System as the rationale.
"Let's get it working," Ms. Froman said. "Let's make sure the 23 states that aren't reporting the names of people who are mentally ill and have violent tendencies, let's get those reported and into the system, and then we can take a look."
Last month, the NRA also vehemently denied reports that the group was working on legislation to strengthen background checks with Sen. Joe Manchin, West Virginia Democrat and a lifelong, A-rated NRA member. Mr. Manchin is working on a background check proposal with fellow Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, as well as Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Mark Kirk of Illinois.
"NRA does not support universal background checks and is not working with Manchin to implement this type of legislation," Mr. Cox said. "NRA opposes, and will continue to oppose, universal background checks and registration schemes."
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