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What Do Guns Mean to Gun Owners?

New research examines gun owners’ attitudes and views.

Source: klimkin/Pixabay

Gun violence is a major problem in the U.S. For instance, in 2018, guns caused nearly 40,000 deaths. I have previously reported on strategies to reduce gun violence; but to develop more effective strategies, we need to learn more about why people own guns, what guns mean to them, and how they feel about gun control policies.

According to a recent paper, by Siegel and Boine at Boston University, published in the November issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, most gun owners possess guns for reasons of self-defense, believe gun control advocates want to take their guns away, and claim their unwillingness to participate in gun violence prevention has to do, in part, with their perceptions of gun control advocates as always blaming them.

Methods and results of the gun owner survey

A random sample of nearly 3,700 gun owners was invited to take part in a national survey of gun owners in the U.S. Of these, 2,086 completed the survey. Roughly 31% were female; 35% were 60 years or older; 76% were non-Hispanic White; 41% $100k+ earners; 32% had a bachelor’s degree or higher; 79% were from a metropolitan area; 51% were Republican (26% Democrat); and 49% were conservative (17% liberal).

The measures used included those related to “gun ownership, gun-related activities, gun owner identity, the symbolic meaning of guns, opinion toward firearm policies, attitudes toward the gun control movement, and civic engagement with gun violence prevention.”

The symbolic meaning of firearms was measured with questions that asked whether owning a gun was important to the participants’ sense of freedom and whether guns made them feel safe, patriotic, confident, respected, responsible, in control, and of greater value to their family and community.

Analysis of the results showed the top reasons the participants gave for gun ownership were:

  • Defense (59%)
  • Recreation (27%)
  • Constitutional rights or feelings of power (8%)
  • Other (6%)

Most respondents reported engaging in gun-related activities quite infrequently. For instance, just 14% habitually went to the shooting range and less than 2% went to gun shows with any regularity.

At the same time, the majority of gun owners saw guns as symbols of freedom (63%) and claimed guns made them feel safe (59%).

As for opinions regarding gun-control supporters, a large number saw them as threats to the gun culture and gun rights. For instance, gun owners felt advocates wanted to abolish the Second Amendment or take all their weapons away (59%).

Opinions on gun control policies were mixed. The policy that received the greatest support was background checks for concealed weapon permits (87%). In comparison, there was only 41% support for banning assault weapons.

Opinions regarding gun control policies seemed related to factors such as beliefs about the intentions of gun-control supporters. To illustrate, support for banning assault weapons was lower among gun owners who believed advocates were trying to take away their guns (24%) than gun owners who did not believe so (65%); it was also lower among gun owners who saw guns as symbols of freedom (28%) than those who did not (64%).

Gun ownership and gun violence prevention

Gun owners are often seen as “citizen-protectors who take on the defense of others as a personal responsibility, shooters who thrive on competitive recreation, good guys with guns who feel empowered by gun ownership, gun show fanatics, or gun aficionados.”

However, the current research suggests the majority of gun owners are regular people who want to protect themselves and their homes.

Ironically, most participants did not think of themselves as “being like the typical gun owner,” perhaps because they had accepted the stereotypes of gun owners that have been promoted by the media and the NRA.

The investigation also found the majority of gun owners do not regularly participate in gun-related activities (e.g., concealed carry, NRA membership, support for gun rights).

In terms of opinions on gun policy, those with a stronger gun owner identity, symbolic connection to guns, and a more negative view of public health advocates (e.g., believing advocates want to abolish gun culture and take people’s guns away) opposed banning assault weapons much more strongly.

In general, gun owners supported policies that would prevent potentially dangerous people (e.g., severely mentally ill and violent offenders) from owning guns, but very few were willing to show their support for the policies publicly. Why? Partly because they felt blamed by gun control advocates (most of whom, they felt, knew little about either guns or gun ownership).

The data showed most gun owners opposed policies that could potentially prevent law-abiding citizens from protecting themselves using weapons (e.g., restrictions on concealed carry, assault weapon ban). For example, 77% supported the need for permits for handgun purchases, but only 32% supported may-issue laws—laws giving discretion to officials to approve or deny a concealed carry permit.

The authors note, “This nearly 2-fold difference in public opinion is striking because although permit systems affect the general ease of purchasing a gun, may-issue laws specifically affect the ability to carry a gun in public for self-defense. Thus, the latter laws are more threatening to gun owners, most of whom own guns for self-defense.”


What are the implications of these findings for gun violence prevention?

One, gun owners need to feel understood.

It is fine for advocates to share information about the link between gun ownership and gun violence—e.g., gun ownership and access to guns are associated with increased gun-related fatalities, and access to guns may be more predictive of gun violence than is mental illness.

However, advocates should do so without disrespecting or blaming gun owners. As noted earlier, most gun owners have important reasons for gun ownership (wanting to protect themselves and their families at home).

Second, we need to challenge the NRA rhetoric—that the real goal of many policies related to gun violence prevention is to take away everyone’s guns. Such rhetoric reframes these policies as direct threats to gun owners’ freedom or ability to protect themselves, with the result that many gun owners would oppose these policies.