Opinions on guns are divided, but maybe not as much as you’d think

By Sabhanaz Rashid Diya and Archer Newell

At Lucid, we wanted to demonstrate how our data collection platform can be used in combination with large public data sets to better understand important policy issues. Given recent events, we decided to take a deep dive into understanding the tension between the right to own and gun safety. We ran a series of polls among US adults in September and October this year to explore where Americans stand on gun control and potential relationships between gun ownership, gun-related deaths and partisanship. We combined our data with publicly available data from Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2015), American Community Survey (2015) and voter registration data (2014) to provide a comprehensive view on one of America’s core policy debates.

On October the 1st, Steven Paddock, a 64-year-old gunman rained fire on country music fans at Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas. He killed 59 people and injured over 528 others before committing suicide. It was the worst mass shooting in the modern history of America, now all too familiar with carnage.

Mass shootings in the US (1982–2017). Data: Mother Jones (2017)

Year after year, mass shootings have dominated news with increasing number of casualties. In 2016, Omar Mateen, 29, attacked a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people. In 2015, a couple killed 14 and injured 21 others in San Bernardino, California. In 2012, James Holmes, 24, opened fire in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, killing 12 people.

In this piece, we find out who gun owners are, where public opinion on policies are more nuanced and whether mass shootings have an impact on Americans’ favorability for stricter gun control regulations.

Who are America’s gun owners?

In our poll, we find majority gun owners in the US are white males who make under $50,000 annually.

Among gun owners, just over 50 percent approve of the job President Trump is doing. To further examine this thesis, we regress gun ownership on job approval for President Trump and discovered a correlation of 0.155. This does not necessarily suggest a causal relationship, although a recent study has found owning a gun increases the likelihood of voting for a Republican presidential candidate based on data collected in the past few decades.

There is a correlation of 0.155 between gun ownership and approval for President Trump. Data: Lucid (Oct 2017)

Where America stands on gun control

Our poll reveals 54 percent Americans agree stricter gun regulations will reduce the number of mass shootings in the US while 37 percent disagree.

Although just over half of the population agrees that enforcing regulations is key to responding to mass shootings, there are significant divisions among different segments of the population.

We compare how the population is divided on enforcing stricter gun control laws by gender, race and gun ownership. More females tend to favor control than oppose. In contrast, more men oppose regulations than favor.

How Americans are divided on enforcing stricter gun control regulations. Data: Lucid (Oct 2017)

The most significant difference in implementing stricter gun control however is evident among households with guns versus those without. Gun owners are strong advocates of the deeply seeded theory that more guns equal less crime, in spite of evidence suggesting no such relationship. We will examine this theory later in this piece.

Are gun control regulations victim to increasing partisanship?

Many would argue stopping mass shootings is an impossible problem. Capitol Hill has been stalling laws on stricter gun control for years. Democrats and Republicans are split by a wide margin on enforcing stricter gun control regulations: seventy-three percent Democrats are in favor of overall gun control compared to forty percent Republicans.

Much to our surprise however, Democrats and Republicans are less polarized on specific gun control policies compared to other policies we have measured— an important detail that gets lost through reporting superficial statistic. Just over 76 percent Democrats and 66 percent Republicans agree there should be laws to make gun sales subject to background checks, while 77 percent Democrats and 71 percent Republicans feel people with mental illness should be prevented from purchasing guns.

How Democrats and Republicans are polarized on specific gun control policies. Data: Lucid, Oct 2017

The biggest divide exists when it comes to overall rights relative to guns, or the freedom enjoyed by individuals to own a firearm. A ban on assault-style firearms polarized respondents. Our polls find 68 percent Democrats support ban on assault style weapons in contrast to 43 percent Republicans who feel the same.

These nuances make gun rights and regulations an increasingly complex policy debate. We polled American adults nationally on September 19–20, September 26–27, October 3–4 and October 9–10, each time asking the same question: do you agree or disagree that the US government should implement stricter gun control laws. The following chart illustrates how the percentage of Americans (split by party identification) that favor that the government in implementing stricter gun control laws changes over time.

Gap between Democrats and Republicans on enforcing stricter gun control laws widens after Vegas shooting. Data: Lucid (Oct 2017)

The gap between Democrats and Republicans is wide, but what’s more interesting is how this gap widened after the shooting in Vegas strip. We find 72 percent Democrats and 37 percent Republicans favor implementing stricter laws for gun control. This is a stark difference compared to 68 percent Democrats and 41 percent Republicans who favored the same on our polls on September 19–20.

It can therefore be assumed that states with higher proportion of Republicans will have disproportionately higher levels of gun ownership, suggesting correlation between party affiliation and gun ownership. We regressed state-level party registration data with gun ownership and found no significant relationship between the two. In fact, gun ownership is more diffused than we expected it to be.

Correlation between party identification and gun ownership by state. Data: Injury Prevention (2015); HuffPollster (2014)

Do more guns necessarily mean more firearm related deaths?

Our poll on self-reported gun ownership, consistent with results from various sources, find the guns in circulation are owned by approximately 35 percent of the US adult population. The National Rifles Association are vocal proponents of the assumption that more guns equals less crime (and therefore less violence) in spite of evidence that suggests otherwise. In fact, our analysis finds a robust relationship between higher percentage of gun ownership and higher percentage of firearm related homicides: a correlation of 0.575 at 95 percent confidence interval.

Relationship between firearm possession and firearm related deaths (by state). Data: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2015); Injury Prevention (2015); Lucid (Oct 2017)

This seems rather intuitive: more guns should mean more gun related violence. Many academics caution against making this argument: there is no evidence confirming more guns naturally leads to more gun related homicides. Data obtained from Center for Disease Control and Prevention does not separate homicides caused by civilians and law enforcement agencies, implying bias in the results. Reserch also shows there is a significant relationship between higher percent of gun ownership and suicide rates at the state level.

States with higher rural population tend to have higher levels of gun ownership, as found in a study from Harvard and Northeastern universities. Our own analysis is consistent with the study where we found a correlation of 0.474 at the 95 percent confident interval between percentage of Americans living in rural areas and gun ownership.

There is a correlation of 0.474 between rural population and gun ownership. Data: Lucid (Oct 2017)

In conclusion…

Our findings are consistent with academic studies on the spread and effect of gun ownership and related factors. We are able to use our data collection platform in combination with large, publicly available datasets to produce more comprehensive insights into a critical policy debate. Publicly available datasets are often limited in their accuracy of temporal and spatial data on firearm related violence that differentiates between civilian and law enforcement, and homicide and suicide rates.

In spite of limitations, what is abundantly clear from our research is Americans generally agree on enforcing some restrictions when purchasing firearms. What divides them however is the degree to which gun control regulations hinder their personal freedom to own a firearm and confounding theories that draw parallels between gun ownership and mass shootings in the country.

In future, we want to expand the application of our data collection platform to examine fresh and valuable findings to other policy issues. We are continuously learning and excited about combining public opinion research with public policy analysis to produce a holistic view on American politics and society.

You can read more about our sampling and research methodology here or contact us at research[at]luc.id.

Kalesan et al. (2015). Gun ownership and social gun culture. Injury Prevention. dx.doi.org/10.1136/ injuryprev-2015–041586