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Americans and Guns: Danger or Defense?

by Darren K. Carlson

The Second Amendment ensures Americans have the right to keep and bear arms. How many Americans exercise this right? A recent Gallup Poll* asked just that, revealing some insight into which Americans are most likely to own guns and what public sentiment is toward gun ownership and household safety.

Thirty-eight percent of Americans report having a gun in their homes, and another 2% say they have a gun elsewhere on their properties (like in a garage, barn, or car). The percentage of Americans reporting they have a gun in their homes has hovered around the 40% mark since 2000.

Gallup has been asking about gun ownership since 1959. From 1959 through 1993, an average of 47% of Americans reported having a gun in their homes. Since that time, household gun ownership has dropped to an average of 40%. The enactment of tougher gun laws in the mid-1990s, including the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in November 1993, which instituted stricter rules for firearm sales, may have played a role in the declining gun ownership numbers since then.

Which Groups Are Most Likely to Own Guns?

For many, the term "gun owner" brings to mind the image of a white male, most likely Republican, living in a rural area of the South. While many Americans who don't fit that demographic profile do own guns, the likelihood of owning a gun is higher among people with these demographic characteristics. 

Men are more likely than women to report gun ownership (49% compared with 33%), and whites are more likely than nonwhites to own (44% and 24%, respectively). Residents of the South are significantly more likely than those living in other regions to report owning a gun. Further, more than half of those living in rural areas (56%) own a gun, compared with 40% of suburbanites and 29% of those living in urban areas. More than half (53%) of Republicans own guns, compared with 36% of political independents and 31% of Democrats.

More Than One Per Household

Gallup also asked those with guns in their households about the total number of guns they have. The data illustrate that many gun owners are gun enthusiasts. A majority of gun owners (62%) have more than one gun on their properties, including 29% who say they have five or more guns. Slightly less than a third (31%) of gun owners have just one gun. This is the highest percentage of single-gun ownership since 1993.

Among gun owners, the average number of guns owned is 4.4 per household. Among all Americans (including those who don't own guns), the average number of guns owned is 1.7. 

Do Guns Make Households Safer?

The safety of guns in the home is a major point of debate. On one hand, a gun could provide valuable protection against home invasion. On the other hand, misuse of a gun could lead to a tragic accident. Americans are divided on the topic, with 46% saying that having a gun in the home makes it a more dangerous place to be, and 42% saying guns make households safer. The most recent results represent a slight shift from 2000, when 35% of Americans thought guns made a household safer, and 51% thought guns made households more dangerous.

Not surprisingly, gun owners are significantly more likely than non-owners to believe guns make households safer. Seventy-one percent of gun owners think so, compared with 23% of non-owners. Interestingly, people who have been victimized by crime in the past year are not more likely than non-victims to think a gun makes a home safer.  

*These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,012 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Oct. 11-14, 2004. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

For results based on the sample of 431 gun owners, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.


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