Background Checks

Voicing Our Values—Background Checks to Curtail Gun Violence

Supports the Toomey/Manchin/Schumer Amendment 

This is an addendum to our book, Voicing Our Values: A Message Guide for Candidates. Our purpose is to help lawmakers, candidates and activists understand how to persuade undecided voters to support current proposals to curtail gun violence. We encourage you to adapt the language to your own voice and personalize it with your own knowledge and experience.

For a PDF copy of Voicing Our Values—Background Checks to Curtail Gun Violence, click here.

Our most important advice:

(1)   Lay out the problem in simple terms—most Americans have no idea how easy our laws make it for dangerous people to buy guns;

(2)   Don’t let pro-gun advocates sidetrack the debate into “straw man” arguments or obscure “facts”—about 90 percent of their arguments are actually designed to change the subject, so you need to insist on a debate about the legislation at hand; and

(3)   Generally…

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .

Gun control

Stricter gun laws

You oppose the 2nd Amendment

Preventing gun violence

Stronger gun laws

Support for the 2nd Amendment goes hand-in-hand with keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people 

People have negative reactions to “gun control” and “stricter” laws, and they feel positive about the 2nd Amendment. Also, most voters have a favorable view of the National Rifle Association (NRA), so avoid direct criticism. If the situation requires you to address the NRA, then condemn “NRA lobbyists” or the “NRA’s out-of-touch leaders” and not NRA members.

Here’s how to introduce your argument:

Say . . .

The most basic purpose of government is to keep law-abiding citizens safe and secure from crime. But every day, far too many of us are victims of gun violence. Dozens of Americans will be murdered, hundreds of others will be shot, and nearly one-thousand will be robbed or assaulted with a gun—today. (If you can, tell a personal story.) 

Don’t skip the universally-shared values we are fighting for—safety and security. And then, don’t ignore the fundamental facts that motivate us to fight: there are about 10,000 gun murders, about 100,000 people shot, and about 350,000 Americans robbed or assaulted with firearms—every single year. Let people recognize that every day, wherever we go in America, we are all at risk of gun violence. And then:

Say . . .

Why . . .

It is absurd to allow guns to be sold to felons or the dangerously mentally ill. That’s why current law requires that no gun can be sold by a licensed gun dealer without a criminal background check. But millions of guns are sold by unlicensed sellers at gun shows and through Internet sites with no background check. We need to strengthen current law to cover all commercial gun sales. The few minutes it takes to complete a computerized check will certainly save lives. How can we not do that?

Since 1968, federal law has banned the possession of firearms by convicted felons, domestic abusers, and people who are dangerously mentally ill. The Brady law, enacted in 1993, requires a criminal background check before any licensed dealer can sell any firearm. (Some states require more.) A National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) for gun purchases, operated by the FBI, began operation in 1998. Requiring a background check for every commercial gun sale is simply common sense, and that’s why over 90 percent of Americans support it.

Here’s how to answer the most common arguments against the legislation:

Pro-gun argument:  “Criminals will get guns anyway.”

Say . . .

The federal background check law has blocked more than 1.5 million illegal gun sales over the past 14 years. It works. The problem is that the law doesn’t apply to gun show, Internet and other commercial sales, so felons can avoid a background check and get any kind of gun, no questions asked. Both the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the national Fraternal Order of Police have endorsed mandatory, universal background checks because they know it will save lives. It’s time to close these loopholes in the law. 

Nobody suggests this law will stop all criminals. To be successful, it doesn’t have to—no law stops all crime. It’s simply common sense to block as many illegal sales as possible. 

Pro-gun argument:  “Background checks will give the federal government the data to create a gun registration list, and that’s what they will do.”

Say . . .

There is nothing in the background check proposal that creates a registry. In fact, existing law forbids the federal government from establishing a gun registration list. Specifically, every time the background check system is used and the gun purchase is approved, the government is required to destroy all records about the purchaser.

Pro-gun argument:  “Even if not in this current legislation, background checks will lead to gun registration and confiscation later on.”

Say . . .

I support the 2nd Amendment and would fight any future overreaching legislation. But it’s not realistic to oppose something on the grounds that it might someday lead to something else. The fact is, even gun owners overwhelmingly favor requiring a background check of anyone purchasing a gun. It will lead to fewer firearm deaths. 

Pro-gun argument:  “The proposed background check would violate the 2nd Amendment.”

Say . . .

I support the 2nd Amendment. The fact is, we’ve had a federal background check for 19 years and state background checks long before that. Courts uniformly rule they are constitutional. The NRA itself has conceded the point by endorsing a variety of background check proposals in 1999, 1993, 1989 and 1988. The constitutional question is settled. 

Pro-gun argument:  “A background check wouldn’t have stopped Newtown.”

Say . . .

We don’t make any laws that way. The law against murder doesn’t stop all murders; we don’t expect it to. The law that lowered the blood alcohol level for driving didn’t stop all drunk driving; we didn’t expect it to. The question is not whether this law would have certainly stopped any particular crime, it is whether our communities would be safer with this law. 

Pro-gun argument:  “This proposed law puts us on a slippery slope that will lead to worse laws down the road.”

Say . . .

You could make that argument against any law. You could say we shouldn’t have driver’s licenses because it might lead to bicycling licenses, walking licenses, and the confiscation of cars. The question is whether we should enforce current law that bans gun sales to felons and people who are dangerously mentally ill. If the answer is yes, then we need these background checks. It’s just common sense. 

Pro-gun argument:  “That gun law will inhibit the right to self-defense.”

Say . . .

I support the right to self-defense and nothing in this legislation would prevent law-abiding citizens from getting a gun or defending themselves with it. 

Pro-gun argument:  “We should provide armed guards/do something about mental health/make parents take responsibility/ban violent video games instead.”

Say . . .

This is not an either-or debate; one policy does not exclude another. 

Pro-gun argument:  “There are already lots of gun laws on the books, so let’s enforce the law.”

Say . . .

I agree that current laws should be enforced to make our communities safer. We have a law that says felons are prohibited from buying guns. The only way to enforce that law is to require a criminal background check before every commercial gun sale. In addition, we can both enforce existing law and strengthen it, which is what we need to do. This is not an either-or debate. 

Pro-gun argument:  “The answer to gun violence is to have more guns. An armed society is a polite society.”

Say . . .

The states with the highest gun ownership rates have more gun violence—by far. But more important, this legislation will not prevent law-abiding Americans from buying or owning guns. It just makes our communities safer. 

Pro-gun argument:  “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Say . . .

It just doesn’t work. Columbine High School had an armed deputy sheriff. Virginia Tech had an entire police force, including a SWAT team. At the Tucson shooting, not only was there an armed civilian who failed to stop the shooter, but he almost shot one of the brave unarmed people who tackled and disarmed the shooter. The Fort Hood massacre happened at a military base filled with soldiers. President Reagan and his press secretary Jim Brady were surrounded by armed police and Secret Service, and yet both were shot. 

Pro-gun argument:  “Gun laws are fascist.”

Say . . .

Actually Hitler loosened restrictions on guns. Let’s get back to the real issue. We have had a federal background check for 19 years but it doesn’t cover millions of sales at gun shows and over the Internet. It is just common sense to close those loopholes in the law. 


For our book about how to talk about a wide variety of issues, see Voicing Our Values: A Message Guide for Candidates, which is available free at

Do you like this page?