Wide gulf in attitudes, experiences separates people who own guns from those who don’t

David Lauter
Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Americans who own guns and those who don’t have starkly differing views about weapons, their role in society and their relationship to crime — disagreements that help explain why the national debate over gun control seldom moves.

About 30 percent of Americans own a gun, most of those more than one. A roughly equal number not only don’t own a firearm, but also say they can’t see themselves ever having one.

Among those who do own guns, about half say that all or most of the people they know also are gun owners, and about 8 in 10 say that at least some of their friends own guns, as well. Among those who don’t own guns, only 1 in 10 say that all or most of their friends own weapons.

Guns, finished and in progress, line the walls of Hawka s gunsmithing shop. (Ash Adams/Kaiser Health News/TNS)

The numbers, from a major new study of gun ownership and attitudes toward guns by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, depict two camps that have become isolated from each other, even as the share of Americans who own a gun has declined in recent decades.

Gun owners are much more likely to live in rural areas, non-owners in cities. Gun ownership is most common in the South, least common in the Northeast. Almost half of white men say they own a gun; only about a quarter of minority men, and fewer women, say the same.

The reasons for owning a gun appear to have shifted, as well. Among people over 65 who grew up in gun-owning households, about 8 in 10 say the main reason then was hunting. That drops to half for those under 30 who grew up in a house with a gun.

Today, the most widely given reason for owning a gun is protection, cited by about two-thirds of gun owners surveyed. About one-third cited hunting as a major reason, and fewer, about 1 in 8 gun owners, said they hunt often.

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Another major reason appears to be identity and culture. About two-thirds of those who own a gun grew up in a household with one. That’s even more true in rural areas, where more than 7 in 10 gun owners grew up in gun households.

Men who grew up in homes with guns say, on average, that they first shot a weapon at age 12.

About a quarter of gun owners say that having a weapon is a major part of their identity. Three-quarters call the right to own a weapon “essential” to their freedom.

By contrast, among those who don’t own a gun, most grew up in homes without firearms and only about one-third said they viewed the right to own weapons as essential to freedom.

Those cultural dimensions of gun ownership help explain what might otherwise be a puzzling finding: Even as most gun owners say that protection is a major reason for owning a weapon, ownership has little relationship to people’s view of whether their community is safe or not.

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Gun owners who feel their community is unsafe, however, are more likely than others to carry a weapon with them when they leave home.

Non-owners tend to associate guns with violence. About 6 in 10 non-owners call gun violence a “big problem” in the U.S. and about two-thirds say that the ease with which people can legally get a gun contributes a “great deal or a fair amount to gun violence.”

By contrast, only about a third of gun owners label gun violence as a big problem nationally. About 4 in 10 gun owners say that the ease of legally getting a weapon contributes a great deal or fair amount to that problem.

There’s a partisan gap on that issue even among gun owners. Democrats who own guns are more likely than Republican gun owners to see gun violence as a significant problem and say that legal gun ownership contributes to it.

Majorities of both gun owners and non-owners groups agree that illegal gun purchases are a serious problem, and they agree on a couple of measures to deal with it.

On both sides, for example, overwhelming majorities support keeping guns away from the mentally ill. Nearly 8 in 10 gun owners and almost 9 in 10 non-owners support background checks for private sales of weapons and sales at gun shows. Despite the widespread support for background checks, measures in Congress to expand them repeatedly have stalled.

And among both groups, most oppose allowing people to carry concealed weapons without a permit — only about a third of gun owners and 1 in 8non-owners back that idea, which has been pushed by gun-rights advocates in several states.

On most other policy issues related to guns, however, owners and non-owners have sharply differing views. About three-quarters of non-owners, for example, favor a ban on assault-style weapons, but fewer than half of gun owners agree. A similar divide exists over proposals to limit the size of ammunition magazines.

More fundamentally, most gun owners don’t think that more guns generate more crime, while a plurality of non-owners do.

Slightly more than half of gun owners say that the country would have less crime if more people were armed. Only about 1 in 8gun owners say they believe more guns would mean more crime.

By contrast, among non-owners, nearly half say that more guns would bring more crime; fewer than 1 in 4 say that more guns would reduce crime.

About half the respondents said they believe that fewer mass shooting would take place if legal gun purchases were more difficult, while just under 4 in 10 do not believe that shootings would decline.

Overall, however, respondents expressed a certain fatalism about violence. About three-quarters said that if someone wants to kill or harm another person, they’ll find a way to do it, gun or no gun.

That ambivalence about the role of guns in violence is one reason why further efforts to regulate gun ownership have largely stalled in Congress. The political activism of gun owners is another.

About 1 in 5 gun owners say they have contacted an elected official on issues related to guns. Only about 1 in 8 non-owners has done so.

Overall, the poll said, Americans remain evenly divided on the question of whether elected officials should put a higher priority on protecting the rights of gun owners or controlling gun ownership. That even division has remained constant since early in President Barack Obama’s administration.

Support for gun control dropped sharply just after Obama took office, largely because of a shift by Republicans. The division has not changed much so far since President Donald Trump’s election.

The Pew survey was conducted in two waves, March 13-27 and April 4-18, among 3,930 members of the research group’s online American Trends Panel. The panel is a nationally representative sample of the public created by Pew for research purposes. Results have a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points in either direction.