June 22, 2017

America’s Complex Relationship With Guns

4. Views of guns and gun violence

Most Americans say gun violence is a problem in the U.S., but fewer see this as a problem in their local community. Overall, half of all U.S adults say gun violence is a very big problem in this country, and an additional 33% say it is a moderately big problem. By comparison, less than half (44%) say gun violence is a very big problem (19%) or moderately big (25%) problem in their community. Views on the severity of gun violence, nationally and locally, differ dramatically between gun owners and those who do not own guns.

When asked about the underlying reasons for gun violence in the U.S., many Americans point to the ease with which people can illegally obtain guns. About half of adults (53%) say this contributes a great deal to gun violence and roughly a third (32%) say this contributes a fair amount.

While gun owners and non-owners share similar views on the extent to which access to illegal guns has a great deal of impact on gun violence, there is much less agreement when it comes to the ease with which people can legally obtain guns, with non-gun owners far more likely than those who own guns to say this contributes to gun violence a great deal or a fair amount.

There also is less agreement between those who do and do not own guns on the extent to which other factors – family instability, a lack of economic opportunities and gun-related media– contribute to gun violence in the U.S.

On the whole, the public is divided over the potential impact having more guns in the U.S. would have on overall crime rates. Roughly a third (35%) say that if more Americans owned guns there would be more crime; a similar share (33%) says if more people owned guns there would be less crime, and another third (32%) say there would be little effect. Gun owners and non-gun owners have differing views on this. On balance, gun owners say having more people with guns would lead to less crime, while a plurality of non-gun owners say more guns would lead to higher crime rates.

About half of the public (47%) says that if it were harder for people to legally obtain guns, there would be fewer mass shootings in the U.S. Roughly four-in-ten (39%) say making it harder for people to legally buy guns would not impact the number of mass shootings, and 13% say this would result in more shootings. Non-gun owners are much more likely than gun owners to say further restricting legal gun sales would result in fewer mass shootings (56% vs. 29%). For their part, 53% of gun owners say increasing restrictions wouldn’t make any difference.

Whether or not gun sales are regulated, most adults see little link between access to guns and likelihood of committing a crime. Large majorities of gun owners and non-gun owners say that if someone wants to commit a crime, they will find a way to do it whether they have access to a gun or not.

Gun owners and non-gun owners are divided on how they see violence in the U.S., local communities

There is a stark divide in views about the severity of gun violence between gun owners and those who do not own a gun, with non-owners roughly twice as likely to say gun violence is a very big problem – both in the nation and in their local community. Nearly six-in-ten (59%) non-owners say gun violence is a very big problem in the U.S., while just one-third (33%) of gun owners say the same. Similarly, among those who do not own guns, 22% say gun violence is a very big problem in their community; only 11% of gun owners say the same.

Concerns about gun violence, particularly in local communities, vary greatly by race. Nearly half (49%) of blacks and 29% of Hispanics say gun violence is a very big problem in their local community; just 11% of whites rate this as a very big problem.

Americans living in rural areas are, on the whole, less concerned about violence in their local communities. Just 8% of rural Americans say gun violence is a very big problem in their local area.

Americans living closer to cities, either in the suburbs (19%) or in urban areas (28%), are more likely to say gun violence is a big problem near them. Among gun owners, rural residents are much less likely to see gun violence as a problem in their community; just 5% say this is a very big problem while 16% of suburban gun owners say the same.

When it comes to assessments of the extent to which gun violence is a problem in the country more generally, large partisan differences emerge. One-third (32%) of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they think gun violence is a very big problem nationally; two times as many (65%) Democrats and independents who lean toward the Democratic Party share the same view. This difference persists among gun owners. Half (50%) of Democratic gun owners say they think gun violence is a very big problem in the U.S., compared with 22% of Republican gun owners.

Women also express more concern about gun violence in the United States. More than half of women (56%) say this is a very big problem, compared with 44% of men. A similar pattern is seen when women and men are asked about gun violence in their own communities.

Ease of access to illegal guns seen as the biggest contributor to gun violence

When asked about the factors that may be contributing to gun violence in the U.S. today, many Americans point to the ease with which people can illegally obtain guns. Fully 86% cite this as contributing a great deal or a fair amount to gun violence. Some 14% say it doesn’t contribute much or at all. Far fewer adults say legal access to guns contributes to gun violence: 60% say this contributes a great deal or a fair amount to gun violence in this country, while four-in-ten say it is not a contributing factor.

Many Americans point to forces beyond gun access as contributing factors in gun violence in the U.S. For example, roughly three-quarters (74%) of Americans say family instability contributes a great deal or fair amount to gun violence. Fewer cite a lack of economic opportunities (65%) and the amount of gun violence in video games (60%) and movies and TV (55%) as contributing factors.

Eight-in-ten or more gun owners and non-owners both cite ease of access to illegal guns as contributing a great deal or fair amount to gun violence (83% of gun owners, 87% of non-gun owners). The two groups further diverge, however, when thinking about the ease with which people can legally obtain guns: 44% of gun owners, compared with 67% of non-gun owners, say this contributes a great deal or fair amount to gun violence. Gun owners and non-owners also disagree about the role of family instability and violence in the media, with more non-gun owners than gun owners consistently citing these factors as contributing to gun violence.

While adults of all ages list access to illegal guns as the top contributor to gun violence, those ages 65 and older are nearly two times more likely than younger adults to cite violence in video games (82% say this contributes a great deal or fair amount to gun violence) and violence in movies and television (77%); by contrast, 42% of adults ages 18 to 29 point to violence in video games and 39% point to violence in television and movies as major contributors to gun violence.

There also are large differences by race. Fully 73% of blacks cite access to legal guns as contributing at least a fair amount to gun violence, compared with 54% of whites. Blacks are also more likely than whites to cite violence in video games (72% of blacks say this contributes a great deal vs. 59% of whites) as a driver of gun violence.

While men and women both list access to illegal guns as a top contributor to gun violence in the U.S., gender differences are particularly evident when looking at violence in the media. Women are 18 percentage points more likely than men to cite violence in television and movies as contributing at least a fair amount to gun violence (64% vs 46%) and 21 points more likely to cite violence in video games as a contributing factor (70% among women vs 49% among men).

Clear partisan differences emerge when looking at the underlying factors that contribute to gun violence. While Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are slightly more likely than Republicans and Republican-leaning independents to say ease of access to illegal guns contribute a great deal or a fair amount to gun violence (88% vs 84%), Democrats are nearly two times more likely to say access to legal guns contributes to gun violence (76% vs 39%). This gap persists when controlling for gun ownership: 72% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning gun owners say access to legal guns contributes a great deal to gun violence, compared with 28% of Republican and Republican-leaning gun owners.

Mixed views on the impact more guns would have on crime rates

The public is evenly split when it comes to the potential impact that more Americans owning guns would have on crime in the U.S. Roughly equal shares say that if more Americans owned guns there would be less crime (33%), more crime (35%) and that there would be no difference in the amount of crime (32%).

Gun owners and non-owners are deeply divided on whether more guns would lead to more or less crime. About half (54%) of gun owners say they think more Americans owning guns would reduce crime, while 23% of non-gun owners say the same. A 44% plurality of non-gun owners expect that more guns would lead to an uptick in crime.

Wide partisan differences also emerge on views of whether more guns would lead to more or less crime, and these differences persist when controlling for gun ownership. For example, 71% of Republican or Republican-leaning gun owners say there would be less crime if more Americans owned guns; just about a quarter of Democratic or Democratic-leaning gun owners (24%) agree.

Within party, owners are more likely than non-owners to say more guns would lead to less crime. Among Republicans the gap between gun owners and non-owners is particularly wide. Seven-in-ten (71%) Republican gun owners say more guns would lead to less crime, compared with fewer than half (43%) of non-gun owning Republicans. Among Democrats, one-quarter of gun owners say they think there would be less crime if more Americans owned guns (24%), while 13% of Democratic non-gun owners expect the same.

There is a stark divide in attitudes of whites and blacks on the effect more guns would have on crime. While 45% of blacks say if more Americans owned guns, there would be more crime, only 29% of whites agree (39% of whites say there would be less crime).

Most non-gun owners say making it harder to obtain guns would reduce mass shootings

Nearly half (47%) of Americans say that if it was harder for people to legally obtain guns in the United States, there would be fewer mass shootings in this country. About four-in-ten (39%) say it would make no difference in the number of these incidents and 13% say it would result in more mass shootings.

Mirroring their differing views on the impact of more guns on crime, gun owners and non-owners are divided on the impact increased legal hurdles would have on mass shootings. Fully 56% of non-gun owners expect that if it were harder to obtain guns, the number of mass shootings would decline; 32% expect it would stay the same. Meanwhile, about half of gun owners (53%) expect that this would have no impact on the number of mass shootings.

Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are more than two times as likely to say limitations on legal access to guns would result in fewer mass shootings (64%) than Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (27%). This pattern holds even when controlling for gun ownership.

When it comes to the role guns play in violent crime, three-quarters (75%) of Americans say that people who want to kill or harm others would find a way to do so whether or not they had access to a gun. Just 24% say they think someone is less likely to kill or harm others without access to a gun.

The pattern is nearly identical when it comes to people who want to kill or harm themselves: 73% say they would find a way to do this regardless of whether they had access to a gun, while 27% say those who want to kill or harm themselves would be less likely to do it if they didn’t have access.

Gun owners are more likely to say those who want to kill or harm others would find a way to do so without a gun, but majorities of gun owners and non-owners alike say this is the case (84% vs. 70%, respectively).

There are partisan differences among gun owners. Democratic gun owners are roughly six times more likely to say someone who wanted to kill or harm others would be less likely to do so without access to a gun: 31% of Democrats or independents who lean Democratic say this, compared with 5% of Republicans and independents who lean to the Republican Party.