Unpacking The Pew Research Center’s Latest Gun Survey
By Larry Keane, National Shooting Sports Foundation
Some might see it as a magazine half full – or half empty. Better yet, the findings of a Pew Research Center survey report titled America’s Complex Relationship with Guns shows it’s not time to step off the firing line, but to reload.
The Pew Research Center has released an extensive survey measuring American’s attitudes about gun ownership and the results offer a mixed picture. With the usual firearm-related survey caveats in mind, Pew generally appears to have taken a relatively unbiased approach. Covering everything from the demographics of gun owners to views on violence in America and opinions on gun control policies, this 80-page report offers several key takeaways.
In terms of ownership, the results show about 42 percent of respondents live in a household with a gun and another 36 percent report that they would be open to owning a gun in the future. At least two-thirds of respondents have lived in a household with a firearm at some point in their lives.
Personal protection topped the reasons for owning a firearm, with a full two-thirds of respondents citing this as their primary reason. Remaining answers for firearm ownership had hunting at 38 percent and sport shooting at 30 percent. Forty-four percent said they had multiple reasons for owning guns.
The survey found that about two-thirds of gun owners own multiple firearms. Rather than vilifying this as a small minority “stockpiling weapons,” Pew notes that those with multiple firearms tend to be hunters and own different types of firearms for different purposes including protection, hunting and participation in shooting sports.
About half of us are getting to the range and another 34 percent of us are hunting. Training is important to us, too, with 59 percent saying safety courses for gun owners with children is a priority and 95 percent of gun owners say talking to kids about gun safety is imperative.
NSSF encourages gun owners to have that conversation with their children and to practice safe storage that meets their needs, whether in the form of a cable lock, safe storage lock box or gun safe.
Throughout the results it’s clear that Americans are divided along partisan and regional lines on firearm-related issues. This division exists among gun owners as well as non-gun owners. The results regarding gun control policies must be taken with a grain of salt, as the survey did not explain the policy prescriptions, instead testing the support for soundbites. As we have noted in the past, the way questions are worded largely determines where the results will fall on many of these issues.
However, it is interesting that the top rated policy option here was “preventing the mentally ill from purchasing guns.” This received support from 89 percent of the respondents and has been the focus of NSSF’s successful FixNICS initiative to encourage states to submit their prohibiting mental health records to the federal background check database.
On an unaided basis, it is evident that Pew poll respondents did not know that no-fly lists are notoriously error-prone and names are added without due-process to deny a fundamental right. Likewise, survey administrators surely did not note that federally licensed retailers at gun shows already perform background checks. So, calls for “universal background checks” would, as we learned with the Colorado experience, actually not contribute greatly to the number of checks performed nationally.
Also of concern, the survey seemed to ask about a “style” of rifle, and not how they actually function.
There are other reasons to skeptical of the Pew findings. The research attempts, but doesn’t fully answer the question of how many guns owners “self-select” to opt out of ownership surveys. Pew researchers did note that “most gun owners don’t think their having a firearm is public business.”
The polling found 80 percent of gun owners don’t advertise they ownership, but don’t hide it either. Another 20 percent said they’d rather people don’t know or specifically don’t discuss firearms ownership. Unlike previous telephone surveys, in which Pew admitted gun owners were skeptical of passing along ownership information, this survey was conducted online and by those who already responded to other Pew surveys. Pew said their findings were consistent with Gallup polling on the same subject and the General Social Survey, which is conducted face-to-face.
Here’s the X-ring of all the data. Getting involved makes a difference. Seventy-two percent surveyed said they’ve fired a gun. Half those who own a gun today said they grew up in a house with firearms. And half of those who don’t own a gun would consider buying one in the future. Finally, gun owners talk to elected leaders on firearms related issues at double the rate of non-gun owners.
Here’s our top takeaway: Get involved. Take someone shooting. Make owning a gun great again.
Larry Keane is the National Shooting Sports Foundation Sr. VP & General Counsel.