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WASHINGTON, D.C. (June 22, 2017) – Americans have broad exposure to guns, whether they personally own one or not, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. At least two-thirds have lived in a household with a gun at some point in their lives. And roughly seven-in-ten say they have fired a gun at some point, including 55% of those who have never personally owned a gun. Today, three-in-ten U.S. adults say they own a gun, and an additional 36% say that while they don’t own one now, they might be open to owning a gun in the future. A third of adults say they don’t currently own a gun and can’t see themselves ever doing so.
Protection tops the list of reasons gun owners say they own a gun – 67% say this is a major reason. Many also own guns for recreational purposes: 38% say hunting is a major reason they own a gun, and 30% cite sport shooting.
To be sure, experiences with guns aren’t always positive. Roughly four-in-ten Americans (44%) say they personally know someone who has been shot, either accidentally or intentionally, and about a quarter (23%) say they or someone in their family have been threatened or intimidated by someone using a gun.
Gun owners and those who do not own guns are divided over the extent to which gun violence is a problem in the U.S. While a majority of non-gun owners (59%) say gun violence is a very big problem, far fewer gun owners (33%) share that view. And, while large shares of gun owners and non-owners alike cite ease of access to illegal guns as contributing a great deal or fair amount to gun violence, the two groups differ over how much the ease with which people can legally obtain guns is a contributing factor: 44% of gun owners, compared with 67% of non-gun owners, say legal access to guns contributes a great deal or fair amount to gun violence.
Gun owners and non-owners also are deeply divided on several gun policy proposals, but there is widespread agreement on some restrictions, such as preventing those with mental illnesses and those on federal watch lists from buying guns. Among gun owners, there is a diversity of views on gun policy, driven in large part by party affiliation.
The nationally representative survey of 3,930 U.S. adults, including 1,269 gun owners, was conducted March 13-27 and April 4-18, 2017, using Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.8 percentage points for the full sample.
Among the findings:
|•||The ties that bind gun owners to their firearms are often deep. A majority of gun owners (66%) own multiple firearms, and about three-quarters (73%) say they could never see themselves not owning a gun. Many gun owners exist in a social context where gun ownership is the norm: 49% say that all or most of their friends own guns.|
|•||For most gun owners, owning a firearm is tied to their sense of personal freedom. One key and defining characteristic of gun owners is the extent to which they associate the right to own guns with their own personal sense of freedom – 74% of gun owners say this right is essential, compared with 35% of non-gun owners. Meanwhile, half of all gun owners say owning a gun is important to their overall identity.|
|•||White men are especially likely to be gun owners, but ownership crosses demographic boundaries. About half of white men (48%) say they own a gun, compared with about a quarter of white women and nonwhite men (24% each) and 16% of nonwhite women. Among those who live in rural areas, 46% say they are gun owners, compared with 28% of those who live in the suburbs and 19% in urban areas. Republican and Republican-leaning independents are more than twice as likely as Democrats and those who lean Democratic to say they own a gun (44% vs. 20%).|
|•||For many gun owners, a gun is often close at hand; 38% of gun owners say there is a gun that is both loaded and easily accessible to them all of the time when they’re at home. Men are especially likely to have a loaded gun at the ready: 43% of male gun owners vs. 29% of women who own guns say a loaded gun is always easily accessible.|
|•||Gun owners and non-owners disagree on the potential impact more guns would have on crime rates. About half of gun owners (54%) say they think if more Americans owned guns there would be less crime in the U.S.; 23% of adults who do not own guns say the same. For their part, a plurality of non-gun owners (44%) expect that more guns would lead to more crime. Gun owners are skeptical that making it harder to legally obtain guns would reduce the number of mass shootings in the U.S.; 29% say this, compared with 56% of adults who do not own guns.|
|•||Americans who own guns largely disagree with non-owners on gun policy, but some proposals have support from both groups. Solid majorities of both gun owners and non-owners favor limiting access to guns for people with mental illnesses and individuals who are on the federal no-fly or watch lists (82% or higher favor among each group). In addition, strong majorities favor background checks for private sales and at gun shows (77% among gun owners and 87% among non-owners). The groups are more divided when it comes to three other policy proposals: creating a federal database to track gun sales; banning assault-style weapons; and banning high-capacity magazines. About three-quarters or more of non-gun owners say they would support each of these proposals, while roughly half or less of gun owners say the same. Majorities of gun owners favor some proposals that would expand gun rights, such as allowing people to carry concealed guns in more places and allowing teachers and school officials to carry guns in K-12 schools; only about a third of non-gun owners support these proposals.|
|•||Even among gun owners, Republicans and Democrats don’t see eye to eye on gun policy. Republican gun owners are much more resistant than Democratic gun owners to creating a database to track gun sales and banning assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines. Republicans also are more open to proposals that would expand gun rights. A prime example: 82% of Republican gun owners favor expanding concealed carry laws to more places, compared with 41% of their Democratic counterparts.|
Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It does not take policy positions. The Center is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, its primary funder. Subscribe to our daily and weekly email newsletters or follow us on our Fact Tank blog.