An upcoming survey by researchers at Harvard and Northeastern sheds new light not just on which guns Americans own, but which Americans own guns.
In many ways, the survey describes a demographic profile that’s close to popular conception. As a whole, the estimated 55 million American gun owners — 22 percent of Americans — tend to be older and whiter than the population at large, live in rural areas, and have conservative views. They typically own multiple firearms, both long guns like rifles and shotguns that are associated with hunting, and handguns, like pistols or revolvers, that can be kept in a nightstand or concealed in a waistband.
Gun owners are more likely to have a high school diploma, or some college education, than a full college degree. They’re geographically concentrated in the Southern states, and less commonly found in the Northeast. Veterans are heavily represented among their ranks.
Fear of Other People Is Now the Primary Motivation for American Gun Ownership, a Landmark Survey Finds
But in other ways, they confound expectations. While President Barack Obama infamously characterized those who “cling” to guns as people left behind by economic change, the survey finds many gun owners are fairly affluent. The largest single income bracket is made up of those who earn more than $100,000 a year. About a quarter of gun owners fit this demographic.
There are also, increasingly, two distinct groups of gun owners: those who only own long guns, and those who only own handguns. These subgroups are divided not just by their consumer choices, but also by motivations.
Those who own guns primarily for hunting and sports shooting skew whiter and more rural than the gun owning population at large, and are more likely to own just long guns. Those who are motivated by a desire for self protection favor handguns, and are more likely than the overall gun owning population to be young, female, liberal, or a minority — though this group is also still predominantly white and male.
The self-protection owner also less likely than average to come from a family with a tradition of gun ownership than those who favor long guns. And they are most commonly found in the South. This group is growing faster than the long-gun owners.
The long gun-only crowd is the only subgroup not geographically concentrated in the South — these gun owners are most prominent in the Midwest. They are also the only category more likely to have a child under 18, and the only category as likely to have a college degree as they are other levels of education. Few of those who own only long guns say they do so for self protection, instead choosing their weapons for hunting or other recreational purposes.
The population of handgun owners is growing relative to the population of long-gun owners (though the largest group of gun owners — half of the total — own both types of weapons). They make up about a quarter of the total, and their ranks are growing, while long gun-only owners comprise more like a fifth of all firearms owners, and they are shrinking. That has implications for the future character of gun owners as a social group and political constituency. For instance, long-gun owners who hunt are, despite their conservatism, among the most ardent advocates for environmental conservation — which is necessary, if they are to have a place to hunt.
Handgun owners have less interest in such a goal. Instead, the handgun owner may be more concerned with securing the right to carry a weapon in public or be protected from prosecution if they fire their gun in self-defense.
[Rex Features via AP Images]