January 5, 2016

5 facts about guns in the United States

As President Barack Obama unveils a new initiative aimed at curbing gun violence this week, the public’s attitudes about gun policy will garner renewed attention. Here are some key facts about gun attitudes from recent Pew Research Center surveys:

1Partisan views of gun proposalsAmericans have shown broad and consistent support for expanded background checks for gun purchasers. In July, 85% of the public – including large majorities of both Republicans (79%) and Democrats (88%) – favored making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks. There also was substantial bipartisan support for laws to prevent people with mental illness from purchasing guns.

And Pew Research isn’t the only polling organization with these findings. In 2013, a number of other polling organizations found similar results about public views of background checks, asking slightly different questions. A review of more recent polls on this question finds it’s still the case.

Other proposals were more contentious, however. Fully 85% of Democrats, but just 55% of Republicans, supported a federal database to track gun sales. And while 70% of Democrats favored a ban on assault-style weapons, only about half of Republicans (48%) did so.

2Background checks have proven to be more contentious in practice than in principle. In May 2013, after the Senate rejected the Manchin-Toomey bill to extend background checks to internet and gun show sales, we found that the public was more supportive of background checks in principle than they were of the legislation aimed at achieving this goal.

At the time, 81% favored expanded background checks, while 73% wanted the background checks bill to pass. Among Republicans – especially Tea Party Republicans – support for background-check legislation was much lower than for the overall proposal: 63% of Tea Party Republicans and leaners supported expanded background checks but just 28% wanted the background-check bill to pass.

When we asked those who supported tougher background checks, but opposed the bill, to describe in their own words why they felt that way, the responses were revealing: Many voiced suspicions that the bill would go too far or that it would be a “slippery slope” toward stricter gun controls.

3GOP favored on terrorism, gun control; Democrats lead on climate changeThe Republican Party holds a slight advantage over the Democratic Party in reflecting the public’s views about gun control. In December 2015, 43% said the Republican Party can do a better job of reflecting their views “about gun control,” compared with 37% who said the Democratic Party would do better.

There were substantial gender, race, age, education and regional differences in these attitudes. Men said the GOP better reflects their views on gun control by 46% to 34%; women were divided (40% said the Republicans and an identical percentage said the Democrats).

Adults with postgraduate degrees are the only educational group that favored the Democrats on gun control (53% Democratic Party vs. 33% Republican Party). Those with less education were either divided or said the Republican Party better reflects their views on this issue.

4Views of the NRA’s influence have become more ideologically polarizedViews of the National Rifle Association have become more politically and ideologically polarized over the course of a decade and a half. Among conservative Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, a slim share (13%) said the NRA has too much influence over gun control policy in 2015, compared with 32% who said the same in 2000. In July 2015, nearly six-in-ten (59%) said the NRA has the right amount of influence, and 23% said it has too little.

On the other hand, liberal Democrats and Democratic leaners were more likely to say in July that the NRA has too much control than they were in 2000 (68% vs. 57%).

5Why do you own a gun?The reasons that some Americans own a gun have changed. In 1999, far more gun owners cited hunting, rather than self-protection, as the main reason they owned guns. By 2013, those attitudes had shifted: 48% said protection was the main reason to own a gun, while 32% pointed to hunting.

In 2013, gun owners overwhelmingly said having a gun in their household makes them feel safer – fully 79% expressed this view. Yet about as many (78%) said having a gun was something they enjoyed.

By contrast, most people (58%) who did not have guns in their homes said they would not be comfortable having a gun. And when asked why they would feel uncomfortable, concern about accidents was the most frequently mentioned reason.

Category: 5 Facts

Topics: Political Party Affiliation, Gun Policy, Political Attitudes and Values

  1. Photo of Hannah Fingerhut

    is a research analyst focusing on U.S. politics and policy at Pew Research Center.