Gun owners vs. the NRA: What the polling shows

December 23, 2012

Poli-Sci Perspective is a weekly Wonkblog feature in which Georgetown University’s Dan Hopkins and George Washington University’s Danny Hayes and John Sides offer an empirical perspective on the issues dominating Washington. In this edition, Sides examines research showing that the strongly anti-gun control views embraced by the National Rifle Association are not only at odds with those of most Americans who do not own guns, but differ from those of many gun owners themselves.

After the Newtown shooting, Senator and National Rifle Association member Joe Manchin said that NRA would “offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.”  It sounded as if the NRA might be softening its staunch opposition to gun control.  But at a press conference on Friday, NRA president Wayne LaPierre did nothing of the sort—blaming gun-free school zones, violent video games and films, and the media for rewarding killers with “wall-to-wall attention.”  LaPierre ultimately proposed the “National School Shield Emergency Response Program,” which would put armed security in every single school. 

Perhaps LaPierre’s comments weren’t much of surprise.  They were consistent with what the NRA has been arguing for years: to fight gun violence, make sure that people can fight back with guns of their own.  But what might be surprising is how much the NRA is out of step not just with many Americans, but with many gun owners themselves.


Opinions on gun control are more varied even among gun owners than you might think. (Thomas Cooper/Getty Images)

In December, 2011, the survey firm YouGov interviewed 45,000 Americans and asked whether they or someone in their household owned a gun and whether they were members of the NRA.  About 22 percent of the sample reported owning a gun, 13 percent said that someone else in their household owned a gun, and 59 percent reported not owning a gun.  The remaining 6 percent were not sure.  Thus, about 35 percent of Americans had a gun in their house—a number, incidentally, much lower than in an October, 2011 Gallup poll but more in line with data from the General Social Survey

About 7 percent of this sample reported being an NRA member.  Among gun owners, the number was 24 percent.  Among those who lived in a household with a gun, it was 4 percent.  Among those without a gun, it was 1 pecent.  Ultimately, you can classify 93 percent of respondents into one of four groups: gun owners who were NRA members (5 percent of the sample), gun owners who were not NRA members (17 percent), people who lived with someone who owned a gun and were not NRA members (13 percent), people who did not own a gun or belong to the NRA (58 percent).  Almost all the rest were not NRA members but were also not sure whether there was a gun in their house. 

Why distinguish between people living with someone who owns a gun, people who own a gun, and people who both own a gun and belong to the NRA?  Aren’t they all just “pro-gun” in some sense?  In fact, there are important differences.  For one, in this sample, gun owners were mostly men.  So naturally, people who lived with someone who owns a gun were mostly women.

NRA members were also different politically even from gun owners who weren’t in the NRA.  For example, 70 percent of gun owners who were NRA members called themselves “conservative” or “very conservative.”  Only 44 percent of gun owners who weren’t NRA members said that.  And while gun ownership has become increasingly confined to Republicans, there are still big differences in terms of party identification even among gun owners.  The vast majority of NRA members (73 percent) identified with or leaned toward the Republican Party.  But among gun owners who weren’t in the NRA, only 49 percent were Republicans; more than a third (35 percent) were actually Democrats.  

What about gun control attitudes among these 4 groups? Consider first the standard survey question asking whether gun laws should be more strict, less strict, or unchanged.  A majority, 54 percent, of those who did not own a gun or belong to the NRA said “more strict.”  Interestingly, so did the plurality of those who did not own a gun but lived with a gun owner (40 percent).  But while most NRA members (54 percent) wanted to make gun laws less strict, only 25 percent of gun owners who were not NRA members felt this way.  The plurality of them (45 percent) wanted no change; 25 percent even supported stricter laws.

Of course, simply asking about gun laws in the abstract conceals varying opinions about specific gun laws.  YouGov also measured opinions about eight such measures in its 2012 polls.  The graph below (click to enlarge) shows support for each measure in these 4 groups.  The graphs are ordered by the overall popularity of these measures, with the most popular at the top.

Some measures attracted nearly universal support (keeping guns from the mentally ill) or opposition (banning the sale of handguns).  Requiring a five-day waiting period was also very popular.  Even half of NRA members supported that. 

For the rest of these items, opinions were more mixed, but with a consistent pattern.  First, and unsurprisingly, people who did not own guns or belong to the NRA were most supportive of these measures, and gun owners who were NRA members were the least supportive.  Less than 20 percent, and often less than 10 percent, of NRA members supported these measures. 

Second, people who had a gun in their house, but were not gun owners or NRA members, had opinions very similar to people who did not own guns.  This may reflect the prevalence of women in this group, since women are more likely to support gun control than men.

Third, gun owners who were not NRA members were more supportive of gun control than guns owners who were NRA members.  Forty percent of non-NRA gun owners supported a national gun registry.  Forty percent supported a ban on the sale of magazines with more than 10 rounds.  Thirty-six percent supported a ban on semi-automatic weapons—a striking figure given that almost every gun sold today is semi-automatic and gun owners would be likely to know that.

To be sure, this means that the majority of gun owners—regardless of whether they belonged to the NRA—opposed many forms of gun control.  But on the other hand, this list of gun laws did not include some popular proposals.  For example, gun owners, regardless of NRA membership, appear to support criminal background checks.

What these poll results show is that the coalitional politics of gun control is more complex than you might think after LaPierre’s speech.  This is not a world with gun owners on one side and those who do not own guns on the other.  Two of the policies most discussed in the wake of the Newtown shootings—a ban on assault weapons and a limit on the size of magazines—will attract support not only from those who don’t have a gun in their house but from those who do, especially if the gun isn’t theirs and also if the gun is theirs but they are not NRA members. 

Gun owners do not speak with one voice about gun control, and, for many gun owners, Wayne LaPierre does not appear to speak for them.

John Sides is an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. He specializes in public opinion, voting, and American elections.
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