June 22, 2017

America’s Complex Relationship With Guns

1. The demographics of gun ownership

Understanding gun ownership in America is not as simple as knowing who does and does not own a gun. Some Americans who don’t personally own guns live with someone who does or may have owned a gun in the past. And many who don’t currently own a gun, including those who have never owned one, may be open to doing so in the future.

Three-in-ten American adults say they currently own a gun, and another 11% say they don’t personally own a gun but live with someone who does. Among those who don’t currently own a gun, about half say they could see themselves owning one in the future.

Gun ownership is more common among men than women, and white men are particularly likely to be gun owners. 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. There are also significant differences across parties, with Republican and Republican-leaning independents more than twice as likely as Democrats and those who lean Democratic to say they own a gun (44% vs. 20%).

For many adults who own guns, exposure to guns happened at an early age. About two-thirds of current gun owners (67%) say there were guns in their household growing up, and 76% report that they first fired a gun before they were 18. While non-gun owners are less likely to have grown up in a gun-owning household, a substantial share (40%) say this is the case, and about six-in-ten (61%) say they have fired a gun.

Most gun owners cite multiple reasons for owning a gun. In fact, eight-in-ten say they have more than one reason for owning, and 44% have more than one major reason. Still, protection tops the list, with 67% of current gun owners saying this is a major reason they personally own a gun. About four-in-ten say the same about hunting (38%), while three-in-ten say sport shooting, including target, trap and skeet shooting is a major reason they own a gun. Fewer cite a gun collection (13%) or their job (8%) as major reasons for owning a gun.

Two-thirds of gun owners say they own more than one gun, including 29% who own five or more guns. About seven-in-ten say they own a handgun or pistol (72%), while 62% own a rifle and 54% own a shotgun. Among those who own a single gun, most (62%) say that gun is a handgun or pistol, while far fewer say they own a rifle (22%) or a shotgun (16%).

Measuring gun ownership

Measuring gun ownership comes with its own set of challenges. For example, unlike many demographic questions, there is not a definitive data source from the government or elsewhere on how many American adults own guns.

The new survey asked about gun ownership differently than previous Pew Research Center reports. It collected responses online, where people may be more willing to share sensitive information than they would be over the phone or in person. Furthermore, the survey was conducted among adults who have responded to Pew Research Center surveys in the past as part of the American Trends Panel and thus may be more comfortable answering the questions. Finally, it asked about gun ownership using two separate questions to measure personal and household ownership instead of collecting this information with a single question, as has been the case with previous Pew Research Center reports.

Despite these changes, the share of U.S. adults in the new survey who report that they personally own a gun or who live with someone who does is similar to what the Center found in a survey conducted by telephone in August 2016. Both surveys are consistent with rates of gun ownership reported by the Gallup Organization, but somewhat higher than that reported by the General Social Survey (GSS), which is conducted face to face.

Gun ownership is most common among men, whites

About four-in-ten adults (42%) report that there is a gun in their household, with three-in-ten saying they personally own a gun and 11% saying they don’t own a gun but someone else in their household does.

Gun ownership varies considerably across demographic groups. For example, about four-in-ten men (39%) say they personally own a gun, compared with 22% of women. And while 36% of whites report that they are gun owners, about a quarter of blacks (24%) and 15% of Hispanics say they own a gun.

White men are especially likely to be gun owners: About half (48%) say they own a gun, compared with about a quarter of white women and nonwhite men (24% each) and 16% of nonwhite women.

Like the gender gap, the education gap in gun ownership is particularly pronounced among whites. Overall, about three-in-ten adults with a high school diploma or less (31%) and 34% of those with some college education say they own a gun; a quarter of those with a bachelor’s degree or more say the same. Among whites, about four-in-ten of those with a high school diploma or less (40%) or with some college (42%) are gun owners, compared with roughly a quarter of white college graduates (26%). There is no significant difference in the rate of gun ownership across educational attainment among nonwhites.

Regionally, Northeasterners stand out as the least likely to own guns: 16% of adults who live in the Northeast say they own a gun, about half the share who say this in the South (36%), Midwest (32%) and West (31%).

Across all regions, gun ownership varies considerably between those who live in rural and urban areas, with rural dwellers far more likely than those who live in urban areas to say they own a gun. Overall, 46% of Americans who live in rural parts of the country own a gun, compared with 28% of those who live in the suburbs and 19% of those in urban areas.

Besides demographic differences, clear partisan divides emerge when it comes to gun ownership. Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are more than twice as likely as Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents to say they own a gun (44% vs. 20%). This partisan gap remains even after controlling for demographic differences.

Among the 11% of Americans who don’t personally own a gun but live in a gun-owning household, relatively few (19%) say they ever use the gun or guns in their household.

Most gun owners could never see themselves not owning a gun

Roughly three-quarters of Americans who currently own a gun (73%) say they can’t see themselves ever not owning one, and this is the case among majorities of gun owners across demographic groups.

Perhaps not surprisingly, those who see owning a gun as central to their overall identity are particularly committed to gun ownership. For example, 89% of gun owners who see owning a gun as very or somewhat important to their overall identity say they can’t see themselves ever not owning a gun, compared with 58% of those who say owning a gun is not too important or not at all important their sense of identity.

And while 85% of gun owners who say the right to own guns is essential to their sense of freedom say they can’t see themselves ever not owning a gun at some point, 41% of those who don’t see the right to own guns as essential say the same.

Many non-gun owners are open to owning a gun in the future

In addition to the three-in-ten adults who currently own a gun, another 10% say they have owned one in the past; 58% say they have never owned a gun.

Many adults who don’t currently own a gun say they could see themselves owning one at some point. In fact, 52% of all non-gun owners – and 71% of those who have owned a gun in the past – say they could see themselves owning a gun in the future.

Consistent with patterns in gun ownership, a higher share of men than women who don’t currently own guns say they could see themselves doing so at some point; 62% of men who don’t own guns say this is the case, compared with 45% of women. And while 62% of non-gun owners who live in rural areas say they could see themselves owning a gun at some point, smaller shares of those who live in a suburban (49%) or urban (50%) areas say the same.

Two-thirds of gun owners cite protection as a major reason for owning a gun

Most gun owners cite more than one reason for owning a gun, but protection tops the list, with 67% of gun owners saying this is a major reason they personally own a gun. About four-in-ten (38%) say hunting is a major reason they own a gun, while three-in-ten cite sport shooting, including target, trap and skeet shooting. Fewer gun owners cite a gun collection (13%) or their job (8%) as major reasons.

Men and women are about equally likely to say protection is a major reason they own a gun: 65% and 71%, respectively, say this is the case. But higher shares of male than female gun owners say hunting (43% of men vs. 31% of women) and sport shooting (34% vs. 23%) are major reasons they personally own a gun.

For the most part, gun owners in urban, suburban and rural areas offer similar reasons for owning guns. For example, about seven-in-ten of those who live in urban or suburban areas say protection is a major reason they own a gun (71% each), as do most gun owners in rural parts of the country (62%). And across community types, about three-in-ten cite sport shooting as a major reason.

When it comes to hunting, however, rural gun owners are far more likely than their urban or suburban counterparts to say it is as an important reason they own a gun; 48% of gun owners in rural areas say this, compared with 34% in the suburbs and 27% in urban parts of the country.

Interestingly, gun owners who see their local community as unsafe are not significantly more likely than those who say they live in a safe community to say protection is central to why they own a gun. About three-quarters of gun owners who say the community where they live is not too safe or not at all safe (74%) – and 66% of those who say they live in a community that is very or somewhat safe – cite protection as a major reason they own gun. There is a significant link, however, between owning a gun for protection and perceptions of whether the world, broadly speaking, has become more dangerous. While about seven-in-ten gun owners who say the world has become more dangerous cite protection as a major reason they own a gun (72%), half of those who don’t see the world that way say protection is central to why they own a gun. Overall, 69% of all U.S. adults – and 75% of those who own a gun – say the world has become a more dangerous place.

About two-thirds of gun owners own more than one gun

Most gun owners (66%) say they own more than one gun, with about three-in-ten (29%) saying they own five or more guns. This is, perhaps, not surprising, considering that eight-in-ten gun owners cite more than one reason for owning a gun – including 44% who say there is more than one major reason – and may need different types of guns for different purposes. In fact, most gun owners who cite only one reason for owning a gun say they own a single gun (65%); in contrast, 74% of those who say they own a gun for more than one reason report having at least two guns.

Men are particularly likely to own multiple guns: About three-quarters of male gun owners (74%) say they own two or more guns, compared with 53% of female gun owners. This reflects, in part, the fact that men who own guns are more likely than their female counterparts to have more than one reason for doing so. Still, even after controlling for the number of reasons they own a gun, male gun owners remain more likely than their female counterparts to own multiple guns.

Overall, about seven-in-ten gun owners say they own a handgun or pistol (72%), while 62% own a rifle and 54% own a shotgun. While similar shares of male and female gun owners own a handgun (73% and 71%, respectively), rifles and shotgun are more popular among men. Roughly seven-in-ten male gun owners (69%) say they own a rifle and 60% own a shotgun, compared with 50% and 44% of women who own each type of gun, respectively.

Among gun owners with only one gun, handguns are by far the most common type of gun: 62% say this is the type of gun they own, while 22% own a rifle and 16% own a shotgun.

Most gun owners say there were guns in their household growing up

Adults who describe the community where they grew up as rural are particularly likely to have grown up with a gun in their household: 72% in this group say this is the case. Still, a substantial share of those who grew up in a small town (52%), a suburb (37%) or a city (39%) say guns were present in their home when they were growing up.

Regardless of the type of community they lived in growing up, adults who grew up with guns in their households are far more likely than those who did not to be gun owners themselves. About four-in-ten who grew up in a gun-owning household say they currently own a gun (42%), compared with 19% of those who didn’t grow up with guns in their household. While this difference is most pronounced among those who grew up in rural areas – 48% of those who grew up with guns now own a gun vs. 12% of those who didn’t grow up with guns in their household – it is also evident among those who grew up in small towns, suburbs or cities.

Among non-gun owners, about six-in-ten of those who grew up in a gun-owning household say they could see themselves owning a gun at some point (61%). Of those who didn’t grow up with guns in their household, smaller shares say the same (46%).

Reasons for having had guns in the household growing up vary considerably across community type. For example, eight-in-ten adults who grew up in a gun-owning household in a rural area cite hunting as a reason there were guns in their household, while fewer cite protection (57%) or sport shooting (51%). In contrast, seven-in-ten of those who grew up in a gun-owning household in a city say there were guns in their household for protection; about half cite hunting (51%) or sport shooting (50%) as reasons there were guns in their household growing up.

Protection is cited far more often by adults younger than 30 than their older counterparts as a reason there were guns in their household growing up. About eight-in-ten young adults who grew up in a gun-owning household (79%) say this was a reason, compared with 66% of those ages 30 to 49, 60% of those ages 50 to 64, and just 34% of those ages 65 and older.

By contrast, older Americans who grew up in a gun-owning household are far more likely than younger adults who grew up with guns to point to hunting as a reason guns were present in their household. About eight-in-ten of those ages 65 and older (84%) and 73% of those ages 50 to 64 cite hunting as a reason; a narrower majority of adults ages 30 to 49 who grew up in a gun-owning household (60%) and about half of those younger than 30 (52%) cite hunting.

Higher shares of men than women who grew up with guns in the household say they participated in certain gun-related activities

While men and women are equally likely to say there were guns in their household growing up, men who grew up in a gun-owning household are far more likely than their female counterparts to say they went hunting or shooting when they were growing up. About half of men who grew up with guns in their homes say they went hunting often (27%) or sometimes (23%). Among women who grew up in a gun-owning household, about one-in-five (22%) say they went hunting at least sometimes when they were growing up, while most say they hardly ever (18%) or never (61%) did this.

Men who grew up in a gun-owning household are also more likely than women who grew up with guns in their homes to say they went shooting or to a gun range growing up, though relatively few men or women say they did this often (13% and 7%, respectively). About four-in-ten men who grew up in a gun-owning household (44%) say they went shooting or to a gun range at least sometimes when they were growing up, while about a quarter of women (27%) say the same.

Among adults who didn’t grow up in a gun-owning household, few say they went hunting or shooting when they were growing up. But men who didn’t grow up with guns are somewhat more likely than women who didn’t grow up with guns to say they participated in these activities at least sometimes. One-in-ten men who didn’t grow up with guns in their household say they went hunting often or sometimes, compared with 5% of women. And while 16% of men in this group went shooting or to a gun range at least sometimes when they were growing up, even smaller shares of women did so (6%).

When it comes to airsoft guns, such as paintball, BB or pellet guns, 57% of men – including 72% of those who grew up with guns in their household and 42% of those who didn’t – say they used them often or sometimes when they were growing up. Just 20% of women say they used airsoft guns at least sometimes when they were growing up.

Gun ownership tends to happen at an earlier age for those who grew up with guns in their household

Among all current and past gun owners, the average age at which Americans say they first became gun owners is 22 years. Nearly four-in-ten current or past gun owners (37%) report that they were younger than 18 when they first got their own gun.

Current or past gun-owners who grew up with guns in their household report that they first became gun owners at an earlier age than those who didn’t grow up in a gun-owning household.

About half of those who grew up with guns (47%) say they were younger than 18 when they first got their own gun, compared with 19% of those who didn’t grow up with guns in their household.

Among men who own or have owned a gun and who grew up in a gun-owning household, 61% say they personally became gun owners before they turned 18; a quarter of women in the same group say they were younger than 18 when they first got their own gun. On average, men who grew up in a gun-owning household report that they first got their own gun when they were 17, compared with an average age of 26 for women who grew up with guns in their household.

Overall, men who currently own guns or who have done so in the past report that they first became gun owners at age 19, on average; for women who own or previously owned guns, that age is 27.

Most Americans say they have fired a gun at some point

About seven-in-ten adults (72%) say they have fired a gun at some point in their lives. While this is particularly the case among those who own or have owned a gun (95%), about half of those who have never personally owned a gun say they have fired one (55%).

Large majorities of about nine-in-ten or more among current and past gun owners say they have fired a gun, and this is true across demographic groups. Among those who have never owned a gun, however, there are some significant demographic differences in the shares who say they have fired one. In many ways, these differences mirror the patterns in gun ownership.

For example, men who have never owned a gun are more likely than their female counterparts to say they have fired one (64% vs. 50%). About two-thirds (68%) of whites who have never owned a gun say they have fired one at some point, compared with 32% of blacks and 35% of Hispanics who have never owned a gun. And while 68% of those who live in rural areas who have never owned a gun say they have fired one, about half of those who live in urban (48%) or suburban (56%) areas have had this experience.

Among adults who have never personally owned a gun, seven-in-ten of those who grew up with guns in their household say they have fired a gun at some point, compared with 47% of those who didn’t grow up in a gun-owning household. Whether they have or have not personally owned a gun, the average age at which those who grew up with guns in the household say they first fired a gun is 14 years, compared with 20 years among those who didn’t grow up in a gun-owning household.

Men who grew up in a gun-owning household report that they first fired a gun when they were, on average, 12 years old. Among women who grew up with guns in their household, the average age at which they first fired a gun is 17.

Most Americans say society has a negative view of gun owners, but that people in their own communities look at gun owners is a positive way

A majority of Americans say that society tends to have a negative view of gun owners, a perception that is somewhat more common among non-gun owners than among those who own a gun. About six-in-ten Americans who don’t own a gun (61%) say society has a negative view of gun owners, while 38% say society’s views are generally positive. Opinions are more mixed among gun owners themselves: 54% say society tends to have a negative view and 45% say it has a positive view of most gun owners.

Americans have a different assessment of how people in their own communities view gun owners. Most (61%) say people in their community generally view gun owners in a positive way, and this is particularly the case among those who live in rural communities. About eight-in-ten adults who live in a rural area (79%) say people in their community generally have a positive view of gun owners; just 47% of those in urban areas say the same about people in their community.

Gun owners are far more likely than non-gun owners to say people in their community look at most gun owners in a positive way; 78% of gun owners say this is the case, compared with 53% of non-gun owners. Assessments vary between gun owners and those who don’t own guns across community types, but differences are particularly pronounced among those who live in urban or suburban areas.

For example, while 66% of urban gun owners say people in their community generally have a positive view of most gun owners, less than half of those who do not own guns in urban areas say this is the case (42%). In rural areas, gun owners are somewhat more likely than those who don’t own guns to say people in their community look at gun owners in a positive way, but majorities of both groups offer this assessment (85% and 74%, respectively).