Fact-Check: Durbin Mostly on Target with Claim about Police Support for Expanding Background Checks

Speaking about legislation that would require background checks for all gun sales, Illinois’ senior senator said not only does the public overwhelmingly support it — police officers do too.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

In remarks during a visit to a Chicago hospital, Democratic U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin said President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are standing in the way of efforts on Capitol Hill to address gun violence despite widespread public support.

Trump and McConnell, he contended, have stonewalled efforts to expand background check requirements via bipartisan legislation that cleared the Democrat-controlled House more than 200 days ago. Current federal law requires background checks for sales by licensed gun dealers but not for gun sales by private sellers; the House bill would require background checks for all firearm purchases.

“Background checks just make sense,” Durbin said. “Turns out that 90% of policemen are for it, 90% of gun owners are for it, the overwhelming majority of members of the National Rifle Association are for it. And yet this president and the leader of the Senate refuse to act.”

PolitiFact has previously checked claims about broad support for expanded background checks among the general public, along with statements that line up with what Durbin said about gun owners and members of the National Rifle Association widely backing them as well.

But his claim about support among law enforcement wasn’t one we’d heard before, so we decided to check it out.

A spokesperson for Durbin’s office pointed us to results from a survey published in 2017 by Pew Research Center, a generally reliable source for data. Experts we contacted told us they were not aware of any more recent surveys on the topic.

That survey — conducted for Pew by the National Police Research Platform, a consortium of researchers headquartered at the University of Illinois at Chicago — found 88% of police support “making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks.”

The margin of error for the question was plus or minus two percentage points, according to a Pew spokesperson.

As the survey’s detailed methodology section lays out, interviews were completed online during the summer of 2016 by nearly 8,000 officers from 54 police and sheriff’s departments across the country.

Experts, including at Pew, explained there’s one caveat worth keeping in mind, though. The survey left out more rural, small-town police forces throughout the country: It provides a nationally representative sample of officers working in departments that employ at least 100 full-time sworn officers, but smaller departments were not included.

“While 88% appears to be a good estimate for this sampling frame, it may exclude a fraction of the nation’s officers who disproportionately hold more conservative views on gun control issues,” said polling expert Steven Smith, a professor of social sciences and political science at Washington University in St. Louis.

However, Smith noted, a substantial majority of police nationwide likely work for departments of the size that were included.

Indeed, 63% of all sworn officers work in departments of more than 100 officers, according to Pew. So the result still speaks for the majority.

To gain some insight into that position, we asked local law enforcement leaders why police are likely to support expanding background checks.

“Most of them want to protect the Constitution,” said Frank Kaminski, police chief of Park Ridge, Ill. and a former president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. “But they also see the violence in the streets every day and realize that we have to take common sense measures to reduce it."

“When we talk about violence, we talk about violence not only to citizens but also to officers,” he added.

Our ruling

While speaking about legislation that would expand background checks to all gun sales, Durbin said 90% of police back such a policy.

He was referencing a 2017 survey by Pew Research Center, which asked police at departments that employ 100 or more officers whether they support requiring background checks for private gun sales and sales at gun shows. Eighty-eight percent responded that they did.

However, it’s important to note that survey left out officers at smaller, more rural jurisdictions who may not share the same views, and we could not find any other recent polls that addressed the question.

We rate Durbin’s claim Mostly True.

MOSTLY TRUE — The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.

Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.


Durbin tweet, Sept. 23, 2019

H.R. 8, accessed Oct. 1, 2019

“Top Democrats tell Trump gun bill must include universal background checks,” Reuters, Sept. 15, 2019

Email, Durbin spokesperson Joe LaPaille, Sept. 25 & Oct. 1, 2019

Survey: Comparing police, public views, Pew Research Center, Jan. 11, 2017

Email, Pew spokesperson Colin Lahiff, Sept. 30, 2019

Email, Steven Smith, professor of social sciences and political science at Washington University in St. Louis, Sept. 30, 2019

Email, Janine Perry, professor of political science at the University of Arkansas and director of the Arkansas Poll, Sept. 30, 2019

Email, Andrew Smith, professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire and director of the UNH Survey Center, Oct. 1, 2019

Phone interview, Steve Stelter, police chief of Westchester, Ill. and current president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, Oct. 4, 2019

Phone interview, Frank Kaminski, police chief of Park Ridge, Ill. and past president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, Oct. 4, 2019