A customer selects a rifle at Freddie Bear Sports sporting goods store in… (Scott Olson / Getty Images )
In America’s debate over gun policy, one of the sharpest divides separates those who believe a gun at home makes them safer from those who believe that gun ownership would put them at risk.
Increasingly, gun owners cite protection, rather than hunting or other recreational activities, as the main reason they own a gun, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center. Nearly half of gun owners cited “protection” as their main reason for owning a gun, according to the survey. That’s twice the number who cited protection in a similar survey 15 years ago. Hunting, which used to be the main reason cited, is now the first reason given by only about one-third of adults.
By contrast, among people whose households do not have guns, almost six in 10 say that having one at home would make them feel “uncomfortable.” Asked why, most said they worried about accidents or that they considered guns dangerous or unsafe.
That gulf in how people view guns – a source of protection or a threat – helps explain a wide gap in attitudes toward gun policy. Because the groups most likely to own guns – white men, particularly those older than 50 or living in rural areas – are also most likely to be Republicans, it’s no surprise that the division over gun policy has also become polarized by party.
Over the last 20 years, Republicans have become far less likely to say that stricter gun laws would cut the number of accidental deaths or suicides. Republicans have also become far more likely to say that they think that protecting gun rights takes priority over controlling gun ownership. About one-third of self-identified Republicans said that stricter gun laws would reduce accidental deaths, about half as many as said so in a similar survey in 1993. Attitudes among Democrats have not shifted, with about three-quarters saying stricter gun laws would cut the number of accidental deaths.
Just over one-third of adults in the current survey said that someone in their household owns a gun, with about one-quarter of adults saying they personally do and 13% saying that someone else in their household does. White men make up 61% of gun owners, compared with 32% of the U.S. adult population. Those older than 50 are almost twice as likely to own a gun than those under 30. Southerners and Midwesterners are significantly more likely to own guns than residents of either the East or West. The share of self-described Republicans who said they own a gun, 31%, is almost twice as large as the share among Democrats, 16%.
A significant amount of survey data show gun owners to be a shrinking share of the American public. Although gun sales have risen in recent years, many of those sales involve people who already own a gun buying another.
Pew’s finding that 37% of adults say that someone in their household owns a gun closely matches the percentage found in 2012 by the General Social Survey, a large-scale academic research project of the independent research organization NORC. The data from the General Social Survey, which is taken every two years, have shown a steady decline in the percentage of households owning a gun since the early 1970s, when the survey first began to ask the question. Pew’s data also show a decline; in the 1993 Pew survey, 45% of adults said that someone in their household owned a gun.
Gun-rights advocates have questioned the accuracy of such surveys, suggesting gun owners may simply not tell pollsters that they have a firearm. No definitive data exist because the government does not track gun ownership. Data from the Gallup poll have shown the percentage of people saying they own a gun fluctuating without a consistent trend. But whites and rural residents are both shrinking demographic groups, and separate surveys have shown a sharp decline in the percentage of Americans who say they hunt, all of which would be consistent with declining numbers of gun owners.
[For the Record, March 12, 2:42 p.m.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly described the General Social Survey as being a project of the University of Chicago.]
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