Released: March 12, 2013
Why Own a Gun? Protection Is Now Top Reason
Perspectives of Gun Owners, Non-Owners
The vast majority of gun owners say that having a gun makes them feel safer. And far more today than in 1999 cite protection – rather than hunting or other activities – as the maireason they own guns.
A national survey finds that nearly half of gun owners (48%) volunteer that the main reason they own a gun is for protection; just 32% say they have a gun primarily for hunting and even fewer cite other reasons, such as target shooting. In 1999, 49% said they owned a gun mostly for hunting, while just 26% cited protection as the biggest factor.
The survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted Feb. 13-18 among 1,504 adults, finds that safety also is a major concern among the majority of Americans who do not have guns. Nearly six-in-ten (58%) of those in households without guns say they would be uncomfortable having a gun in their homes. When asked why they would be uncomfortable, more cite concerns over gun accidents and safety than any other factor.
When it comes to enacting stricter gun control laws, Americans see both pros and cons. Most (58%) worry that new laws would make it more difficult for people to protect their homes and families. Roughly the same number (54%) say stricter laws would reduce the number of deaths caused by mass shootings.
Gun owners and non-gun owners have fundamental disagreements over the effectiveness of new gun laws. Two-thirds (66%) of those who live in households that do not have guns say stricter gun laws would reduce the number of deaths in mass shootings, compared with just 35% of gun owners.
Yet the partisan divide over many of these issues is at least as great as the differences between gun owners and non-gun owners. Fully 79% of Democrats say tougher gun laws would cut down on the number of deaths from mass shootings; just 29% of Republicans agree.
Public Opposes Letting States Ignore Federal Gun Laws
As previously reported, most Americans support new gun control legislation such as broader background checks or bans on assault-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips. Yet as such legislation is being debated in Washington, D.C., some state legislatures are considering laws that would attempt to nullify any new federal controls.
The survey finds that 60% of the public says that states should not be allowed to ignore federal gun laws, while 36% say that states should be able to ignore federal gun laws, if they choose to do so.
Gun owners are divided over whether states should be allowed to ignore federal gun laws: 49% say they should, while 48% disagree. Among those in gun-owning households who do not themselves own guns, 59% oppose states ignoring federal gun laws; among those in households without guns, 67% are opposed.
Republicans, by a 58% to 37% margin, say that states should be allowed to ignore federal gun laws if they so choose. About four-in-ten (38%) independents and just 18% of Democrats favor giving states the option to ignore federal gun laws.
Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to own guns. Nearly a third of Republicans (31%) say they personally own a gun, rifle or pistol; that compares with just 16% of Democrats. But even among Republicans who do not own guns, there is far less support for gun control generally – and more support for states being permitted to ignore federal gun laws – than among independents or Democrats.
Far fewer Republicans say that stricter gun laws would reduce the number of accidental deaths caused by guns than did so 20 years ago. Just 32% of Republicans say that stricter gun laws would reduce the number of accidental gun deaths; in 1993, 61% said tougher laws would cut down on gun-related deaths from accidents and suicides. Among Democrats, there has been virtually no change in opinions about this over the past 20 years; 74% say stricter gun laws would reduce the number of accidental deaths caused by guns, little changed from 76% in 1993.
This is consistent with a widening partisan divide in overall attitudes about whether it is more important to control gun ownership or protect the rights of Americans to own guns. Twenty years ago, there was a partisan gap of 20 points in the percentages of Republicans (45%) and Democrats (25%) prioritizing gun rights. Today, the gap has grown to 52 points; 74% of Republicans say it is more important to protect gun rights than to control gun ownership, compared with 22% of Democrats.
How Gun Owners and Non-Gun Owners Feel about Guns
About a quarter of Americans (24%) say they personally own a gun, rifle or pistol; another 13% say another person in their household has a gun. Most Americans (57%) say they do not have a gun in their household. Gun ownership rates differ by gender, region, age, race, ethnicity and other demographics (See Section 3 of this report).Gun owners increasingly cite protection as the main reason they own a gun. And a large percentage (79%) say having a gun makes them feel safer. At the same time, nearly as many (78%) say that owning a gun is something they enjoy.
Those in gun-owning households who do not personally own guns derive far less enjoyment from having a gun; just 43% say this is something that they enjoy. But more than six-in-ten (64%) say that having a gun in their home makes them feel safer.
Relatively few people in gun-owning households – either gun owners or non-gun-owners– say having a gun in the home makes them feel uncomfortable. Just 7% of gun owners and 9% of non-gun owners living in gun households say having a gun in the home makes them feel uncomfortable.
There are sizable partisan and gender differences in these opinions: 58% of Republicans in households without guns say they would be comfortable having a gun in their home, compared with 30% of Democrats. Nearly half (49%) of men in households without guns say they would be comfortable with a gun in their home; just a third (33%) of women in non-gun households say this.
While protection is a major reason that gun owners give for having a weapon, safety also is a top concern among those in non-gun households who express discomfort with having a gun in their home. Among those in non-gun households who would be uncomfortable having a gun, 39% say the reason they would be uncomfortable is the risk of an accident, including 29% who specifically mention concerns about children. Another 22% have more general concerns about the dangers posed by guns or gun safety.