Looking At Gun Control Support Amongst the American Public and Victims of Crime
By Erika Chen (Class of ‘22)
Gun control is one of the most salient partisan issues in American politics. Democrats argue that increased gun control measures are needed for public safety and to curb the rise in gun violence and mass shootings. However, Republicans question the validity of blaming gun ownership and access to guns, placing emphasis on the perpetrators of gun violence rather than guns or all gun owners. In the wake of a school shooting in Michigan, Democrat Chris Murphy proposed but failed to pass gun control legislation to expand background checks, with Republican Senator Chuck Grassley citing that the legislation was “hostile towards lawful gun owners and lawful firearm transactions” and that “so-called universal background checks will not prevent crime and will turn otherwise law-abiding citizens into criminals.”
However, an increasingly popular argument in opposition to gun control is that guns allow Americans to defend themselves from violence and crime. According to research from Pew, personal protection is the top reason (63%) why gun owners say they own a firearm. Given that partisan arguments on gun control are both related to public safety, it calls into question if the American public believes gun control serves to keep the public safe. Debates on gun control have also had a focus on race since crime and violence (including gun violence) disproportionately impact Black Americans, who also make up a significant portion of the electorate. In 2020, gun ownership among Black Americans rose by over 58% percent as a result of increased anxiety and fear of crime and violence in response to the pandemic, anti-police brutality protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and anti-government protests (along with the insurrection at The Capitol). Given this, it is also worth investigating if those most impacted by gun control policies are more or less supportive of gun control policies.
The Cooperative Election Study (CES) can provide insight into American public opinion on gun control. From 2013–2018, CES asked over 200,000 respondents if they supported the following gun control policies:
- Ban assault rifles
- Background checks for guns for all sales
- Ease ability to obtain concealed carry permits
Support and opposition to gun control policies were coded as 1 and 0 respectively. The mean gun control support per respondent is the average level of support based on responses to these gun control policy questions. In 2016, the CES asked respondents if they were a victim of a crime within the past four years. Using responses to this question, victims and non-victims of crime can be compared when evaluating their responses to support for gun control policies. The following data analyses are unweighted, with an overrepresentation of white Democrats, and the findings were statistically significant.
American Public Opinion on Gun Control
Generally, gun control opinion was stable and overall supportive of gun control. From 2013–2018, the mean overall support for gun control only slightly rose from about 0.7 to just below 0.75.
When evaluating gun control support along racial lines, support was stable and white respondents were less supportive of gun control than Black respondents. While the gun control support trend for white respondents relatively mimicked the trend for all respondents, the level of support among Black respondents was consistently higher, falling between 0.8 to 0.85 instead of 0.7 to 0.75.
While this data is unweighted and gives more weight to white Democrats, both Democrats and Republicans demonstrate relatively stable trends and are supportive of gun control. The mean gun control support for Democrats and Republicans were about 0.85 to 0.9 and 0.55 to 0.6, respectively. This shows that although both parties are generally supportive, there is a clear partisan divide in the degree of support.
When comparing Black Democrats and Black Republicans, the partisan divide and trends are nearly identical to the partisan trends for all respondents. Gun control support for Black Democrats and Black Republicans were about 0.85 and 0.5 to 0.7, respectively. Although the error bars are larger for Black Republicans, making it difficult to display a more detailed trend and determine how it compares to the trend for all Republicans, Black Republicans are statistically significantly less supportive of gun control than Black Democrats.
Victims and Non-Victims of Crime on Gun Control
In 2016, 5.5% of respondents identified as a victim of crime within the past four years. Victims of crime were consistently less supportive of gun control (but still supportive of gun control overall). In 2016, support for gun control for victims and non-victims of crime were about 0.66 and 0.73, respectively. Although the difference is minimal, it is statistically significant.
Although both white and Black victims of crime were less supportive of gun control than their non-victims of crime counterparts, Black victims of crime were still more supportive of gun control than white non-victims of crime. Whites were also generally less supportive than the support level for victims and non-victims of crime in the support levels of all respondents, although only very slightly. Black respondents, however, differed more from and were more supportive than the support level for all respondents.
There is a greater divide in support along partisan lines, with Democrats and Republicans’ level of support differing by being greater and lesser than that of all respondents, respectively. However, like race, victims were less supportive of gun control regardless of party but Democrat victims of crime were significantly more supportive than Republican non-victims of crime.
Amongst Black respondents, Black Democrats’ level of support was nearly identical to those of all Democrats. Similarly, Black Democrat victims of crime were also more supportive of gun control than Black Republicans.
The data shows that gun control support has remained relatively stable from 2013–2018, Black respondents were more supportive than white respondents, and partisanship appears to have a strong influence on the level of gun control support. However, despite the partisan divide, both Democrats and Republicans generally support the three gun control policies that were evaluated. This aligns with findings from the Pew Research Center, that showed that Americans exhibit bipartisan support on some gun control policies, such as preventing people with mental illnesses from purchasing firearms or making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks, and slightly over half of Americans support stricter gun laws (although the level of support for gun control has been steadily decreasing). Research on the implementation of gun control measures both in the United States and abroad has found that gun control policies effectively reduce firearm-related death rates. What seems to divide Americans is whether or not certain gun policies are effective and necessary in protecting public safety. Democrats who are supportive of and/or working to pass gun control legislation should focus on better communicating to the electorate how the solution of gun control legislation best serves the considerations of effectiveness and necessity when compared to other options such as purchasing firearms for personal protection.
Racially, Black respondents were consistently more supportive of gun control than white respondents although the partisan divide between Black respondents mimicked the divide and levels of support observed in the trend for all respondents. When looking at victims of crime, victims were consistently less supportive of gun control when grouped by party and race. Given that the majority of gun owners own guns for personal protection and that victims of crime are more likely to be gun owners than non-victims, some victims of crime might see gun control policies as limiting access to protection. The personal protection of a firearm may also be considered necessary in areas of higher rates of crime given that increased police presence does not deter crime. A limitation is that not many questions on gun control were consistently asked annually and we lack the ability to look at more recent years past 2018. Regardless, it would be of interest to analyze support for other gun control questions asked along with the ones asked consistently from 2013 to 2018.
The 2016 CES analyses comparing victims and non-victims of crime found that victims of crime are consistently less supportive of gun control than non-victims of crime. While gun control opinion is generally stable, it would be of interest to investigate if that is the case for victims and non-victims of crime by evaluating responses to other years that asked the victim of crime question. Given the focus on the self defense argument in regard to gun control, the CES has asked respondents if they are gun owners. It would be intriguing to see if there are associations between gun ownership, being a victim of a crime, and gun control support.