The growing "gun gap" in American politics

Do you think that gun owners played a major role in getting Donald Trump elected last November? The default answer would be yes for most of us, I’m sure, but there’s plenty of evidence to back up any anecdotal observations we might make. The Washington Post just published a report from University of Kansas political science professors Mark Joslyn and Don Haider-Markel which specifically studies the “gun gap” in American politics. Rather than looking at generic polling questions which always produce variable results based on how the questions are phrased, this study examines the number of people of each party affiliation who actually own guns and then examines how they’ve been voting over the past couple of generations. The results, while in some ways predictable, deliver a few surprises in terms of just how deep the party divide is when it comes to those who are actually doing the shooting.

Let’s note, here, that over the past three presidential elections, a majority of gun owners have supported Republican candidates. But there was a time when gun owners weren’t so overwhelmingly Republican. In 1976, 50 percent of Republicans, 48 percent of independents, and 45 percent of Democrats owned a gun. That changed in the 1980s and 1990s. By 2000, 30 percent of independents and only 27 percent of Democrats reported having a gun in the home. That drop continued among Democrats; by 2016, only 23 percent owned guns.

Meanwhile, Republican gun ownership has stayed fairly constant. In 2012, 54 percent of Republicans owned guns. That’s nearly the same figure reported in 1973.

Now with significantly fewer Democrat and independent gun owners and the near majority of Republicans, the disparity between gun and non-gun owners’ choice for presidential candidates is expanding.

This graphic from their study tells the story over a longer period of time. It’s not that a larger percentage of Republicans are buying guns, but that fewer and fewer Democrats and independents own any.

The study also highlights one of the areas where Trump actually overperformed this time around, as compared to constant stories about segments of the GOP base where his support was weak. The President’s margin of victory among gun owners was impressive, with 62% of gun owners voting for him. That was 4% better than Mitt Romney did and a full 10% better than John McCain. Whether or not you think that’s enough to tip an election is left to the eye of the beholder, particularly since gun owners were more likely to vote a straight “R ticket” than anyone else to begin with.

But returning to the root cause for this shift, it does raise an interesting question. The total number of guns in the country is either holding steady or slowing growing. But the percentage of liberals who own them is dropping precipitously. If things really do go to hell in a handbasket entirely at some point, who do you suppose is going to stand the best chance of survival?

Food for thought which will hopefully remain hypothetical for the lifetimes of most of us.

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