Gun Owners, Opinions, and Policy Opportunities Amid the Pandemic

By Joseph Popcun, Nicholas Simons, Michael Siegel, Claire Boine

To reduce gun violence in the United States, policy change at the federal, state, and local levels of government is essential. Gun owners and their opinions on these policies could be a vital component to their successful passage and implementation, as emerging research suggests this group supports a number of measures to prevent gun violence. In identifying opportunities to mobilize gun owners and the public writ large, policymakers must consider how these groups form opinions, participate in the political system, and interact with their community to understand which firearm policies are likely to elicit broad support.

Surges in Gun Violence and Firearm Sales

Gun violence may have been partially eclipsed by the COVID-19 pandemic in the public consciousness and on the policy agenda, but it continues to devastate communities across the United States at an alarming and increasing rate. Firearm-involved violence in the United States is near a 40-year high. Using 2019 mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most recent available, the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium’s data dashboard shows that gun violence killed 39,682 people in 2019 alone. From 2010 to 2019, these data show that firearm deaths in the US increased 25 percent, from 31,672. During that time, firearm homicides and suicides climbed 30 percent and 24 percent, respectively.

22 million guns were sold in 2020—a 68 percent increase from 2019.

As the executive branch changes hands from Donald Trump to Joseph Biden, the CDC will not yet have released mortality data for 2020, though there is growing evidence to suggest that the nation may be facing the deadliest year for gun violence on record. Although the impact of this violence has been partially obscured by the pandemic, data suggests that firearm deaths and injuries have grown by double digits in many major cities across the country. Cities like New York saw the number of shooting victims double and shooting incidents increase by 96 percent in 2020, according to available data. Fatal and nonfatal shootings are also on the rise in cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, Houston, Charlotte, and Denver, among others. Moreover, mass shootings continued unabated in 2020, despite the adoption of public health restrictions by state and local governments limiting large gatherings in public areas to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Faced with more shootings, law enforcement officials have grappled with the causes and consequences of this evolving public safety emergency that has coincided with a persistent public health emergency.

Converging with these dual crises of the pandemic and gun violence are an economic recession, widespread racial justice protests that followed George Floyd’s death, and the presidential election, which have fueled or been used to fuel widespread anxiety and uncertainty among Americans. These events have coincided with a record number of firearm sales. According to seasonally adjusted estimates, approximately 22 million guns were sold in 2020—a 68 percent increase from 2019. To put that figure in perspective, there were only five months between 2000 and 2019 where more than 1.5 million firearms were sold, and in 2020, nine months exceeded that volume of sales. Overlaying weekly Google search topics for firearm-related subjects with the monthly number of National Instant Criminal Background Checks paints a clear picture of the unprecedented interest in guns and gun ownership (see Figure 1).

 

The gun buying surge of 2020 was different from recent years. Previous monthly sales records corresponded with sudden economic downturns, upcoming presidential elections, and significant mass shootings with a one month “spike” followed by two-three months of tapering transactions. In 2020, the rate of purchases showed little indication of a return to prepandemic levels. Additionally, previous increases of gun buying typically concentrated more firearms in the hands of existing gun owners. An often-cited figure places the number of firearms in the average gun-owning household at approximately eight, compared to four in 1994. While there has yet to be a reliable, independent analysis, a limited industry survey from early 2020 reported that roughly five million Americans purchased their first firearm with 87 percent of retailers reporting an increase in firearm sales in the first six months of the year. These new gun owners appear notably different than existing gun owners. The first-time gun owners may be socio-demographically different.

Gun Ownership and Attitudes

With a third of Americans already owning guns (and more buying their first), their viewpoints about the use and regulation of firearms are an important factor for policymakers to consider when building consensus for policies to reduce violence. According to a 2019 Gallup poll, 32 percent of Americans own guns while 44 percent report living in a household with a gun present. While that 44 percent is down from 1960 (49 percent), it has increased since 2000 (34 percent). Those percentages are higher among conservative, non-Hispanic white men. Pew Research Center data from 2017 reports similar percentages of gun ownership (30 percent) and residence in a gun-owning household (42 percent), with conservative, white men again more likely to own a firearm. However, the typical gun owner is changing.

In 2020, Michael Siegel and Claire Boine published The Meaning of Guns to Gun Owners in the U.S.: The 2019 National Lawful Use of Guns Survey, which presented new insights into gun owner identity and the symbolic meaning of guns to owners, in addition to gun ownership and political opinions. Of the 2,086 gun owners who responded to the survey, 69 percent identified as male, 76 percent as white, and 49 percent as conservative. The majority of respondents reported that their main reason for owning a gun was defense (59 percent), followed by a sizeable minority who cited recreation (27 percent), and a smaller number (8 percent) who mentioned exercising their constitutional right or giving them a feeling of power. These findings support similar data from a Pew Research Center survey in 2017, which showed that protection, hunting, and sport shooting were major reasons for gun ownership.

A majority of respondents’ reasons to own a gun was: defense (59%), recreation (27%), and Constitutional right (8%).

Strikingly, Siegel and Boine found that only 10 percent of respondents agreed that guns were an important part of their identity, which is in stark contrast to the 50 percent of respondents who said that owning a gun was a very or somewhat important part of their identity in the Pew poll. This more recent, lower reported importance of firearms may suggest a difference in methodology or subtle shift in the assumed identity politics of gun owners. In addition, Pew uncovered that a majority of gun owners feel that society holds a negative view of them (54 percent), but that their community holds a positive view of them (78 percent).

The distinction between perceived societal and community views of gun ownership has potentially significant implications for translating latent support for gun violence prevention policies among gun owners into public positions and government action. Case in point, the National Lawful Use of Guns Survey found that only 7 percent of gun owners who privately endorse universal background checks have ever expressed public support for them. Of that group who privately supported universal background checks but did not publicly say so, 60 percent reported that they did not speak out because they felt blamed by gun control advocates, because advocates did not understand guns, or because advocates did not know anything about gun ownership.

Gun Owners and Public Support for Firearm Policies

Many gun owners are silently supportive of a number of policies to prevent firearm-involved violence. However, policymakers can identify ways to engage and, where possible, mobilize gun owners since the public positions that they do or don’t take can shape whether, and which, policies to reduce gun violence are adopted.

Gun owners appear to generally support restrictions on who can purchase or possess a gun, but they generally oppose regulations on what types of firearms, modifications, and attachments they are allowed to own.

To date, it has proven difficult to bridge this private belief to public support divide. Part of that difficulty, Siegel and Boine found, stems from gun owners’ perceptions that proponents of firearm regulations want to eliminate elements of gun culture (62 percent), abolish the Second Amendment (59 percent), or confiscate all guns (59 percent). These beliefs appear correlated with their support or public support for different types of firearm policies. As shown below from survey data, gun owners appear to generally support restrictions on who can purchase or possess a gun, but they generally oppose regulations on what types of firearms, modifications, and attachments they are allowed to own. This group preference is an area that is primed for future research and analysis.

Comparing responses from Siegel and Boine’s National Lawful Use of Guns Survey against a composite of similar responses from Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research’s National Survey of Gun Policy and Pew Research Center polling yields interesting parallels and contrasts. Specifically, Table 1 reflects six firearm policies that a majority of gun owners and the public support. Composite figures were calculated by identifying similar questions to those posed by Siegel and Boine, then averaging the gun owner and public responses from the National Lawful Use of Guns Survey and Pew Research Center polling to create an approximate measure of support.[1]

Gun owners and the public strongly support purchase and possession prohibitions for individuals with mental illness or a history of domestic violence. Though many people with mental illness are not violent, they pose an increased risk for suicide, which accounts for many gun deaths. It could also be reasonably inferred through their support for universal background checks that they do not want individuals with certain criminal records having access to firearms. Similarly, extreme risk protection orders, or “red flag” laws, are broadly supported, allowing petitioners—typically families and law enforcement—to temporarily remove firearms from individuals who present a danger to themselves or others. These are all policies that are supported by roughly four out of five Americans—gun owners and general public alike. To a lesser degree, gun owners and the public also favor requirements for new gun owners, like mandatory safety courses and permits or licenses to own a firearm. However, support among gun owners is more mixed and divergent from the general public.

TABLE 1. The Most Supported Firearm Policies Among Gun Owners

NOTE: Check Methodology section for details on Gun Owner and Public Support Composite scores.

On the other hand, Table 2 presents five firearm policies that are least supported by gun owners, dividing gun owners, and broader public opinion. Two of these policies concern modifications to firearms, attachments, and ammunition. Specifically, bans on military style, assault weapons—which include certain semiautomatic weapons like AR-15 style rifles that have been used in several deadly mass shootings—and on high-capacity magazines are unpopular with gun owners. Indeed, fewer than half of gun owners support those bans.

Interestingly, gun owners deviate from their general support of purchasing prohibitions (e.g., mental illness, domestic violence) when it comes to age restrictions for individuals under 21 years old. In the most recent survey, only 39 percent supported such a policy. This disparity may be influenced by the experience of gun owners, many of whom were first exposed to firearms as young adults. Pew found that 67 percent of gun owners grew up in households with firearms and 76 percent reported that they fired their first gun before they were 18 years old. Consequently, gun owners may oppose a preclusion on young adults purchasing or possessing firearms because they perceive it as restricting or limiting an experience that they could share with their children.

Similarly, gun owners appear to feel differently about proposals that may affect their self-defense behavior at home, which could explain a divergence in support for owner requirements, like safe storage. While a narrow majority of gun owners supported safety courses and credentials to own firearms, fewer than two out of five gun owners support measures that require locking guns in the home when they are not otherwise in use, according to Siegel and Boine. This opposition may be rooted in a desire for ready access related to their purchase of a firearm for protection or defense.

Generally, the preferences of gun owners reflect that they want to be a part of the solution, supporting regulations to ensure that the people who join their ownership ranks are in good standing and do not pose a safety risk to themselves or others. Gun owners oppose, however, restrictions on the kinds of firearms they can own and how they use them.

Table 2: The Least Supported Firearm Policies among Gun Owners

NOTE: Check Methodology section for details on Gun Owner and Public Support Composite scores.

 

Gun Ownership, Opinions, and Opportunities

Gun owners and their opinions on the regulation of firearms present significant opportunities at the federal, state, and local levels of government to drive policy change and reduce gun violence in the United States. As 2021 brings mass vaccination against the COVID-19 virus and the resumption of economic and social activity, the attention of the public and government leaders will likely shift toward building a more resilient country, equipped with a stronger public and private health infrastructure. This effort to rebuild and reorient the instruments of government and the healthcare system should not overlook the growing toll of gun violence in the United States.

To significantly reduce the number of people who are killed and wounded each year by guns, elected officials and policymakers will need to understand and mobilize public support, engaging both gun owners and nonowners alike. From the most recent data, there are two main opportunities for mobilization. First, as Siegel and Boine found, along with other researchers, existing gun owners are generally supportive of measures to prevent gun violence, but they keep that support to themselves and avoid political activities. However, gun owners are community-focused, feeling that they are held in higher regard within their community than in society writ large. To better engage these gun owners in the policy process, public health practitioners and government leaders will need to identify and articulate how each policy will not undermine the role that guns play in their identity and culture. They will also need to demonstrate an understanding of the decision by gun owners to own a gun for self-defense and allay concerns that their ultimate aim is to take away all firearms from gun owners. Second, new owners—who purchased firearms during the pandemic—represent a new group to engage. These gun owners may be demographically different from existing gun owners—tending to be women, people of color, younger, single, and living in more urban neighborhoods. New owners may have different beliefs and attitudes about guns. They may also have a less established mindset, and, therein, a different connection between their gun ownership and identity since they have fewer firearms, fewer friends with firearms, and less experience with guns.

In 2019, 60 percent of Americans believed that gun laws should be stricter, according to Pew. As we begin 2021, advocacy groups are calling upon Biden to use his executive authority to strengthen the firearm background check process. Given what we know about public opinion, this unilateral move is likely to be supported by most Americans, including three out of four gun owners. The Biden administration could also find broad support for fulfilling its campaign plan to ensure that guns are kept away from certain individuals with mental illness and perpetrators of domestic violence. Regardless, Congressional leadership and engagement on this issue area will be the determining factor in the passage of any new federal laws.

However, if the past is any indicator, state and local governments have proven to be more receptive to gun violence prevention legislation, so elected officials and policymakers at every level should carefully consider prioritizing and reframing policies that can connect to gun owners, in addition to the broader public, in a more meaningful way, balancing the nuances and complexity of their views. Doing so, however, may require public health advocates and other stakeholders to shift their initial legislative priorities from measures that regulate gun type, such as assault weapons bans—which do remove firearms from lawful gun owners—to policies that much more stringently control who can gain access to firearms to ensure that all gun owners are responsible gun owners. As this latest research and analysis from surveys show, these perceptions are vital indicators for government leaders who are proposing, passing, and implementing laws and other policies to reduce firearm-involved deaths and injuries in the United States of America. At a minimum, these insights can help foster a better understanding of which policies gain or lose support among different groups over time as events, like mass shootings, unfold and, more aspirational, which policies may be better positioned for engagement and mobilization efforts.

Methodology

The research cited and compiled within this brief report analyzes the opinions of gun owners and the general public—both gun owners and nongun owners—on several firearm policies to identify opportunities for policymakers to better engage these groups and potentially mobilize support for such policies. We collected data from the 2017 and 2019 National Survey of Gun Policy and 2017 data from the Pew Research Center to create composite scores for gun-owner support and public support, by averaging the responses from both groups during the respective periods of survey responses. We then compared those composite scores against the measure of gun-owner support found in the 2019 National Lawful Use of Guns Survey to identify the most- and least-supported firearm policies among these groups. The National Lawful Use of Guns Survey data from 2019 used a national sample of 2,086 gun owners, which was surveyed from November 27 to December 10, 2019. The National Survey of Gun Policy data from surveys conducted in January 2017 and January 2019 used a national sample of 2,124 and 1,680 adults in the United States, respectively. The 2017 data from Pew Research Center was derived from a national survey of 3,930 adults in the United States that was conducted March 13 to 27 and April 4 to 18, 2017.

Acknowledgment by Co-Authors Michael Siegel and Claire Boine

The 2019 National Lawful Use of Guns Survey was funded by a grant to the Boston University School of Public Health from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Evidence for Action program. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Joseph Popcun is director of policy and practice at the Rockefeller Institute of Government and executive director of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium.

Nicholas Simons is project coordinator at the Rockefeller Institute of Government and helps lead the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium.

Michael Siegel is a professor at the School of Public Health at Boston University and a member of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium.

Claire Boine is a research fellow at the School of Public Health at Boston University.


[1]“Public” includes both gun owners and non-gun owners who responded to each of these respective surveys.

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