A House Divided: Gun Control as a Divisive Issue Among Individuals Living with Gun Owners
by Kyle Krell (class of 2024)
Very often, family members — particularly those living in the same home — hold similar political views. Children generally learn their values and beliefs from their parents and thus adopt comparable stances on politics, and people usually marry spouses whose views are alike to their own. As a result, people living in a home together typically are united in their political beliefs.
However, such an anomaly is exactly what can be found with one of the most salient current issues: gun control. Gun ownership status can be broken into three groups: gun owners, non-gun owners, and non-gun owners that live in a home with a gun owner. As expected, non-gun owners overwhelmingly support gun control reform more than gun owners on average. While this makes intuitive sense, it is less obvious where the third group — Household Owns — would stand on gun control reform. Since everyone in this group lives with a gun owner and given that homes are typically aligned on political views, you may guess that this group would oppose gun control reform at a similar rate to gun owners. However, recent data from the 2022 Cooperative Election Study (CES) indicates that the Household Owns group actually holds views on gun control reform that are much more similar to those of non-gun owners.
The CES surveys 60,000 Americans on many issues, including gun control. The study asks all respondents about their household’s gun ownership status. Respondents select if: they personally own a gun (“Personally Own” group), they don’t personally own a gun but someone in the household does (“Household Owns” group), no one in the household owns a gun (“No One Owns” group), or they are not sure (“Not Sure” group). In the survey, 24% of respondents selected the Personally Own group, 12% the Household Owns group, 59% the No One Owns group, and 6% not sure. Extrapolating, an estimated 38 million Americans say they don’t personally own a gun but live with someone who does.
The study also asks if respondents support or oppose each of six different gun regulation proposals, such as banning assault rifles. On all six proposals, the Household Owns group supports gun reform less than the No One Owns group but still much more than the Personally Own group. Indeed, people who report that someone in their household owns a gun take positions that are much closer to those who live in non-gun households than to people who personally own a gun. The magnitude of this difference varies by question, but the trend is clear and stark across every proposal.
You might think that some underlying factor other than gun ownership explains this trend. However, these patterns hold even when controlling for numerous variables such as ideology, gender, education, race, age, military status, and news consumption. Notably, these patterns only exist on issues related to gun control. When I compared the views between these gun ownership groups on proposals regarding healthcare, immigration, and abortion I found no statistically significant difference between any of the three groups’ support for these proposals. In other words, there is some sort of unique dynamic between living in a home with a gun and higher-than-expected support for gun control reform.
So who is it that comprises this Household Owns group? The Household Owns group is disproportionately composed of females and married individuals. In fact, 56% of respondents in this group are both female and married/in a partnership, compared to merely 24% in general. Thus, a majority of the group appears to be non-gun-owning wives of gun owners.
This is not necessarily surprising since surveys conducted by Pew have shown that gun ownership is highly dependent upon gender, with 43% of men owning guns compared to 22% of women. Thus, it makes sense that a group of non-gun owners would be predominantly female.
Ideologically, the Household Owns group is quite even between liberal and conservative, skewing slightly more liberal. But interestingly, the group again aligns more so with non-gun owners than gun owners, which should make sense given the other trends that have been noted.
Also of note is that the Not Sure group is very, very conservative compared to the other groups. This seems very likely explainable by the fact that conservatives are, in general, much more distrusting of the government and political institutions. As a result, many of the most conservative respondents may respond “Not sure” not because they genuinely do not know about their own gun ownership status but rather because they do not want to divulge their status in the survey. This causes the Not Sure group to be disproportionately conservative.
But why is it that the Household Owns group has different views on gun control than actual gun owners? It is imperative to note that the gun ownership status question, along with all the CES questions, is self-reported. This means that each respondent can choose how they want to respond. While a question about factual information — like whether or not someone owns a gun — should be very clear-cut, there is some ambiguity, particularly with the Household Owns group.
As noted, a large majority of this Household Owns group is married. Usually, married partners consider their things to be jointly-owned. Yet, the married people in this group are saying that they do not personally own a gun, but their spouse does. In essence, these people are actively deciding to distance themselves from ownership of a gun by not claiming to be part of the Personally Own group. And they very likely are doing this because they support gun control reform and don’t want to associate with ownership of the gun in their home. If a married person in this situation opposed gun control reform, then they may well respond that they personally own a gun. So a hypothesis for the trend seen here is that potentially respondents’ views on gun control shape their gun ownership identity, not vice versa. While I presumed gun ownership as the independent variable and gun control beliefs as the dependent variable, this idea suggests that the relationship could actually be reverse causal.
There are both scholarly and political implications to these findings. From an academic perspective, this demonstrates the importance of breaking gun ownership status into several groups. Some surveys use a binary variable for gun ownership status: respondents can select that their household either does or does not own a gun. But as demonstrated here, there exists some nuance among people that live in a household with a gun, with differences between people who claim to personally own a gun and those who don’t. Such surveys would therefore overlook the findings here and other potential interesting trends within gun-owning homes.
Politically, this gives gun control reform activists new potential avenues through which they can promote change. Since gun-owning homes are often all lumped in with one another, there is a large number of potential advocates for gun ownership change (non-gun owners in a gun-owning home) who may be overlooked. By targeting these people in particular, gun control activists could tap into support from hundreds of thousands or even millions of additional people to put pressure on legislators to make gun control change. For these activists, fully utilizing this sect of the population would be like striking gold and could help rally more supporters for gun reform.