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Posted on Mon. Jan. 14, 2013 - 12:01 am EDT

Data sketch portrait of US gun owners

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The universal horror that Americans felt after the Sandy Hook murders may not easily translate into gun policy changes. The gun issue is complex, and the complicated set of views toward firearms among gun owners and non-gun owners makes predicting legislative responses to Sandy Hook difficult.

So much of the post-Sandy Hook political analysis has been on the lobbying influence in Washington of the National Rifle Association, but the divide on guns is deep among the electorate as well. Gun owners have voted for Republican candidates for two decades no matter whether the NRA has actively endorsed candidates or not.

Consequently, rather than a look just at the NRA, more analysis of the characteristics and political beliefs of gun owners – which defy the conventional wisdom – should be undertaken as Congress takes up legislation.

Most sources show that more than 40 percent of American households own a firearm, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service puts the percentage of people who hunted in 2011 at around 4 percent, so gun ownership goes far beyond hunters.

A denigrating and inaccurate caricature of gun owners makes them out to be western Yosemite Sam-like mountain men or gun-toting backwoods southerners. Gun ownership does differ by geography (highest in the Midwest and South), but the partisan beliefs of gun owners are consistent no matter where they live, and the socio-demographic characteristics contradict these views of gun owners.

The correlation between income and gun ownership is strong: higher-income Americans – who tend to be Republicans – are more likely than lower-income Americans to own guns. Also, 56 percent of Republicans own guns compared with only 31 percent of Democrats, according to the New York Times’ Nate Silver.

Although Barack Obama likely misread the chance that numerous gun owners are would-be Democratic voters that prefer to “cling to their guns or religion” and vote Republican out of economic frustration, he had the “or” part right.

Gun owners vote Republican whether they are religious or not. But guns and Bibles do not necessarily go together. In fact, those who never go to church own guns as frequently as those who go to church weekly, according to the 2004 American National Election Studies.

Gun ownership has a powerful influence on voting. I modeled voting behavior using the 2004 election studies that included a measure of gun ownership and found that even when accounting for numerous powerful predictors of congressional voting such as partisanship, religiosity, opinion on abortion, income, education – and even three measures of views on gun control – gun ownership by itself made voters significantly more likely to vote for a Republican for the U.S. House and U.S. Senate.

The influence of gun ownership on citizens’ attitudes has been difficult to assess for numerous reasons.

First, much of the attention has been on the very real influence of the NRA on lawmakers. Second, when political attitudes are studied, the focus is on views of gun control, even though gun ownership has its own significant effect.

Third, the gun-owner-vs.-non-gun-owner divide surprisingly does not match the broader cultural divide that has separated the two parties in recent years. It is an additional barrier that likely exacerbates the current partisan gap.

The “right to bear arms” leads to a fourth reason it is difficult to assess the influence of gun ownership. Analysis of the 2004 election studies shows that most gun owners do not defend the right to bear arms as part of a broader embrace of civil liberties. Rather, security and social order issues concern gun owners far more than rights and liberties.

Relative to non-gun owners, gun owners were far more supportive of capital punishment, distasteful of “newer lifestyles” and illegal immigration, and favorable to the Iraq war and spending on the war on terror.

The post-Sandy Hook focus has concentrated heavily on the influence of the NRA and Americans’ attitudes toward gun control, yet gun ownership may itself provide an indication of a split in the country that may play a key role in legislative debate ahead.

These differences intensify the cultural partisan divide that already makes splitting the middle on taxes and spending nearly impossible. Further, while security concerns all Americans, the data suggest that gun owners believe guns make them safer while non-gun owners likely believe guns make the country less safe.

When our elected officials – and we as citizens – grapple with attempts to make ourselves and our kids more secure, we may run square into this divide. Those in Congress are aware of the gun ownership voting gap.

Perhaps Sandy Hook is a turning point in this debate and consensus-based legislation will come from Congress. But it also may be a point when legislation may poke an already aching partisan sore and drive views of what makes society safe and just further apart.

Michael Wolf is an associate professor of political science at IPFW. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.

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