Guns are deeply ingrained in American society. The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives Americans the right to bear arms, and around three-in-ten American adults personally own a gun. Most of these gun owners say the right to own firearms is essential to their own personal sense of freedom.
At the same time, gun violence – from big-city murders to mass shootings – has spurred debate in Congress and state legislatures over proposals to limit Americans’ access to firearms. Counting murders and suicides, nearly 40,000 people died of gun-related violence in the United States in 2017, the highest annual total in decades.
Here are seven key findings about Americans’ experiences with and attitudes toward guns, drawn from recent Pew Research Center surveys and other data sources.
1Three-in-ten American adults (30%) say they personally own a gun, and an additional 11% say they live with someone who does, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in March and April 2017. Whether or not they personally own a gun, Americans have broad exposure to firearms: Nearly half of U.S. adults (48%) grew up in a household with guns, nearly six-in-ten (59%) have friends who own guns and around seven-in-ten (72%) have fired a gun at some point in their lives – including 55% of those who have never personally owned a gun.
Among Americans who own a gun, nearly two-thirds (66%) say they own more than one, including 29% who own five or more. A large majority of gun owners (72%) own a handgun or pistol, while 62% own a rifle and 54% own a shotgun. About three-quarters of gun owners (73%) say they could never see themselves not owning a gun.
2 Protection tops the list of reasons why gun owners have a gun, according to the same survey. Two-thirds of gun owners (67%) say this as a major reason why they own a firearm. Considerably smaller shares say hunting (38%), sport shooting (30%), gun collecting (13%) or their job (8%) are major reasons. While men and women are about equally likely to cite protection (65% and 71%, respectively) as a major reason they own a gun, women are more likely than men to cite protection as the only reason (27% of women vs. 8% of men). Higher shares of male gun owners than female gun owners point to hunting (43% vs. 31%) and sport shooting (34% vs. 23%) as major reasons for gun ownership.
Regardless of whether they live in an urban, suburban or rural area, Americans are much more likely to cite protection than other considerations as a major reason for owning a gun. Rural gun owners, however, are far more likely than their urban and suburban counterparts to say hunting is a major reason why they own a firearm (48% of rural gun owners say this, compared with 34% of suburbanites and 27% of urbanites).
3 A majority of Americans say gun laws should be stricter. Nearly six-in-ten U.S. adults (57%) say gun laws should be more strict, while smaller shares say they are about right (31%) or should be less strict (11%), according to a survey conducted in September and October 2018. Yet these views differ sharply by party: Eight-in-ten Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (80%) say gun laws should be stricter while 28% of Republicans and GOP leaners say the same. For their part, Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to say gun laws are about right (52% vs. 15%) or should be less strict than they are today (20% vs. 4%).
Partisans are also deeply divided over whether it is more important to control gun ownership or protect gun rights, according to the same survey. Around three-quarters of Republicans (76%) say it’s more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns than it is to control gun ownership, while just 19% of Democrats agree. That 57-percentage-point partisan gap is up from a 29-point gap in 2008.
4 Many gun policy proposals are politically divisive, but there are some on which Republicans and Democrats agree, according to the fall 2018 survey. Around nine-in-ten Republicans and Democrats (both 89%) say people with mental illnesses should be prevented from buying guns. Nearly as many in both parties (86% of Democrats and 83% of Republicans) say people on federal no-fly or watch lists should be barred from purchasing firearms. And majorities of both Democrats (91%) and Republicans (79%) favor background checks for private gun sales and sales at gun shows.
Other proposals bring out stark partisan rifts. Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to favor allowing teachers and school officials to carry guns in elementary and high schools (69% vs. 22%) and allowing people to carry concealed weapons in more places (68% vs. 26%). Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to favor banning assault-style weapons (81% vs. 50%) and high-capacity magazines (81% vs. 51%).
In addition to partisanship, gun ownership also affects Americans’ views of gun policy proposals. Republicans who don’t own a gun, for example, are much more likely than GOP gun owners to favor banning assault-style weapons (65% vs. 31%) and high-capacity magazines (63% vs. 35%). Among Democrats, gun owners are more than twice as likely as those who don’t own a gun to favor expanded concealed carry (50% vs. 21%).
5 Americans are divided over whether restricting legal gun ownership would lead to fewer mass shootings. Debates over the nation’s gun laws have often followed recent mass shootings. But Americans are split over whether legal changes would lead to fewer mass shootings, according to the fall 2018 poll. Nearly half of adults (47%) say there would be fewer mass shootings if it was harder for people to obtain guns legally, while a similar share (46%) says there would be no difference. Very few (6%) say there would be more mass shootings if it was harder for people to obtain guns legally.
Americans are also split on a related question about the potential impact that more Americans owning guns would have on crime more broadly. While 37% of U.S. adults say there would be more crime if more Americans owned guns, 33% say there would be no difference and 29% say there would be less crime.
6 Many Americans say they know someone who has been shot. A significant share of Americans (44%) say they personally know someone who has been shot, either accidentally or intentionally, according to the spring 2017 survey. A majority of black adults (57%) say this, compared with 43% of whites and 42% of Hispanics. Gun owners are more likely than non-gun owners to know someone who has been shot (51% vs. 40%).
Separately, about a quarter of Americans (23%) say someone has used a gun to threaten or intimidate them or someone in their family. There is again a racial gap: About a third of blacks (32%) say this, compared with 20% of whites. About a quarter of Hispanics (24%) say this has happened to them or their family members.
7 2017 saw more gun deaths in the U.S. than any year in decades, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The nearly 40,000 Americans who died of gun-related injuries in 2017 marked a 19% increase from 2012 and the highest annual total since the mid-1990s. The increase in gun deaths over five years included a 15% rise in suicides involving a gun and a 25% rise in murders involving a firearm. (The CDC data includes other categories as well, such as unintentional gun deaths and those involving police or other law enforcement agents.)
Taking overall population changes into account, there were 12 firearm-related deaths for every 100,000 people in 2017, a 14% increase from five years earlier. Despite the recent increase, however, the rate of gun-related deaths was considerably higher during the early and mid-1990s: In 1993, for example, there were 15.6 gun deaths per 100,000 people.
This is an update of a post originally published on Jan. 5, 2016, and written by Hannah Fingerhut, then a research analyst at Pew Research Center.