Demographic Trends of Gun Ownership in the US

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The perception of who owns guns in the U.S. is heavily shaped by stereotypes perpetuated by news media, film, and television. The armed Black man (or boy) is one of the most pervasive images in our media culture, but the image of the armed white southerner, the military veteran, and the hunter are common too.

The results of a 2014 Pew Research Center survey revealed that while some of these stereotypes hold true, others are way off the mark, and possibly quite damaging in their mischaracterization.

1 in 3 Americans Live in a Home With Guns

Pew's survey, which included 3,243 participants from across the country, found that just over a third of all American adults have guns in their homes. The rate of gun ownership is slightly higher for men than for women, and fairly even across the nation, with the exception of the northeast, where just 27 percent have them, as compared with 34 percent in the west, 35 percent in the midwest, and 38 percent in the south. Pew also found similar rates of ownership among those with children in the home and those without -- about a third across the board.

That's where the general trends end and significant differences emerge around other variables and characteristics. Some of them may surprise you.

Older, Rural, and Republican Americans Are More Likely to Own Guns

The study found that gun ownership is highest among those over 50 years of age (40 percent) and lowest among young adults (26 percent), while ownership among middle-aged adults mimics the overall trend. At 51 percent, gun ownership is far more likely among rural residents than all others and lowest in urban areas (25 percent). It's also far more likely among those who affiliate with the Republican party (49 percent) than among those who are Independents (37 percent) or Democrats (22 percent). Ownership by ideology -- conservative, moderate, and liberal -- shows the same distribution.

White People Are Twice as Likely to Own Guns Than Blacks and Hispanics

The really surprising result given the way violence is present within racial stereotypes has to do with race. White adults are twice as likely to have guns at home than are Blacks and Hispanics. While the overall rate of ownership among whites is 41 percent, it is just 19 percent among Blacks and 20 percent among Hispanics. In other words, while more than 1 in 3 white adults lives in a house with guns, just 1 in 5 Black or Hispanics adults do the same. It is gun ownership among white people, then, that drives the national rate up to 34 percent.

However, despite this disparity in ownership by race, Blacks and Hispanics are far more likely than whites to be the victims of gun homicide. That rate is highest for Blacks, which is likely influenced by the over-representation of homicide by police among this racial group, especially since they are the racial group least likely to actually own guns.

Pew's data also reveal a significant trend at the intersection of race and geography: nearly half of all white southerners have guns in the home. (The low rate of ownership among Blacks in the south brings the overall rate for the region down by nine percentage points.)

Gun Owners Are More Likely to Identify as a "Typical American"

Perhaps most fascinating (and troubling) among the findings is the set of data that show a connection between gun ownership and American values and identity. Those who own guns are more likely than the general population to identify as "a typical American," to claim "honor and duty" as core values, and to say that they "often feel proud to be American." And, while those who own guns are also more likely to consider themselves "outdoor" people, just 37 percent of gun owners identify as hunters, fishers, or sportsmen. This finding would seem to debunk the "common sense" notion that people keep firearms for hunting. In fact, most do not actually hunt with them.

Pew's Findings Raise Questions About Gun Crime in the U.S.

For those concerned about the high rate of gun crime in the U.S. compared with other nations, the findings pose some serious questions. Why are police far more likely to kill Black men than any others, especially given that most of those killed by police are unarmed? And, what are the public health consequences of the centrality of firearms to American values and identity?

Perhaps it's time to frame media representation of Black men and boys -- which overwhelmingly portrays them as perpetrators and victims of gun crime -- as a national public health crisis. Certainly, this pervasive imagery has an effect on the expectation among police that they will be armed, despite the fact that they are the least likely racial group to be.

Pew's data also suggest that tackling gun crime in the U.S. will require the decoupling of American values, traditions, rituals, and identity from firearms, as they seem to be tightly linked for many gun owners. These associations likely fuel the scientifically debunked "good guy with a gun" thesis that suggests that gun ownership makes society safer. Sadly, a mountain of scientific evidence shows that it does not, and it's important that we understand the cultural underpinnings of gun ownership if we really want to have a safer society.

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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Demographic Trends of Gun Ownership in the US." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2021, February 16). Demographic Trends of Gun Ownership in the US. Retrieved from Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Demographic Trends of Gun Ownership in the US." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 22, 2021).