In April, President Trump addressed the National Rifle Association’s annual national convention, the first sitting president to do so since Ronald Reagan in 1983. The gun-rights organization endorsed Trump very early, nearly six months before Election Day, and spent millions in key battleground states.
On Election Day, gun owners did in fact come through for Trump. Sixty-two percent of gun owners voted for Trump, according to data from the 2016 American National Election Studies (ANES). This was 4 percent better than Romney’s share of the gun owners’ vote in 2012 and 10 percent more than McCain’s in 2008.
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.
Our research shows that, over these decades, there’s been a growing “gun gap”: an increasing percentage of gun owners have voted Republican, while a decreasing percentage of non-gun owners have done the same. Those results remain after controlling for conventional predictors such as voters’ party identification, ideological leanings, educational attainment, demographics and place of residence.
This gun gap appeared to peak during the Obama victories, with a 30-point difference between the two in 2012. That’s a dramatic jump from the seven-point gap in 1976. Trump’s gun-gap in 2016 was 24 points, the second-highest percentage since 1976.
Is a “gun owner” identity and culture emerging?
We posit that gun ownership represents a cluster of values, such as strong individualism, distrust in government, and personal freedoms that are important to many people. This constellation of values can shape political attitudes and perceptions. The values intersect with conservative ideology and, increasingly, the Republican Party, but are more deeply held and practiced by gun owners.
A gun owner is also supported by gun interest groups and a larger gun culture.
That’s what Trump acknowledged last week: gun owners and gun culture. Our research suggests other Republican presidents might have wished to do the same. Gun ownership may be a proxy for some other variable that that we did not include in the equation.
But the strength and reliability of association between owning a gun and voting Republican is impressive. Across 11 presidential contests, gun ownership was more strongly linked to vote choice than such well-known predictors as gender, age and education. Clearly, voters are assessing candidates based on their position on gun rights; understanding this may offer insight into the distinct behaviors and attitudes of gun and non-gun owners.
Similarly, not owning guns has also become a politicized identity, with gun-control groups expecting candidates to take particular positions. Sizable majorities of non-gun owners consistently vote for Democratic candidates, expanding during the Obama years – which, clearly, helps expand the “gun gap.”
In our highly polarized and partisan climate, gun-rights groups increasingly advocate owning guns to stay safe, while gun-control groups advocate regulation and restriction for the same reason. Watch for the “gun gap” to continue to expand and become ideologically even more rigid.
Mark Joslyn is professor and graduate director of political science at the University of Kansas.
Don Haider-Markel is professor and chair of political science at the University of Kansas. Find him on Twitter @dhmarkel.