Gun Sales and Voter Choice – A Potential Connection?

Coronavirus fears have emptied supermarkets.  Now, they are depleting gun stores.  Gun buyers anticipate civil unrest caused by the extended health crisis and a looming economic collapse.  Amid the uncertainty, they turn to guns. 

According to FBI figures, 3.7 million background checks were conducted last month, which translated to roughly 2 million guns sold.  The March totals were the highest since the system began in 1998.  And they surpassed the previous record of 3.3 million set in December of 2015, after the deadly mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.  In addition, the gun industry’s trade association noted gun retailers said many customers were first time buyers.     

The media framed the implications in typical fashion.  Gun rights groups assert the proliferation of firearms during a pandemic affirms American’s beliefs in the Second Amendment.  And, gun control advocates stress that millions of additional guns invites even greater dangers into already stressed out households.    

Both sides have a point, but nothing new either.       

Instead of considering the intransigent politics of gun violence and the Second Amendment, let’s turn to another implication; one entirely absent from political discourse.      

Gun sales and voter choice

First, the unprecedented surge in gun sales adds to the ranks of gun owners.  As demonstrated in my own research, The Gun Gap, gun owners are a reliable and committed GOP voting bloc. 

Second, as the number of guns owned increases, commitment to Republican candidates strengthen.   

So, new buyers increase the pool of potential Republican votes while repeated gun purchases reinforces the Republican disposition.     

To be clear, this does not mean that new gun owners in March become Republican votes in November.  Democrats and Independents, together, represent the largest proportion of gun owners.  And the surge in gun sales undoubtedly includes many new buyers hostile to Trump and Republicans generally.

In other words, I am claiming only that gun ownership, like other group identities, contributes significantly to raising the probabilities of a Republican vote.  In statistical models that account for party identification and a host of other determinants, gun ownership emerges as an important variable for voter choice.    

The Trump administration considered these facts and promptly revised initial lockdown guidelines declaring gun stores, gun manufacturers and shooting ranges as essential businesses that shouldn’t be shut down during the outbreak.  This placed gun stores in the same category as hospitals, grocery stores and pharmacies.              

Sales in pivotal states

The eye-popping 3.7 million background checks is 48% higher than the number completed during March of 2016 – the last presidential election year.  Even larger increases were reported in several prominent swing states.    

For example, Arizona witnessed extraordinary gun sales as did key rust belt states Michigan and Wisconsin.  Pennsylvania’s sales growth was small but only by comparison to the other states that posted increases of well over 50 percent. 

Recent polling showed Trump and Biden within the margin of error in Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.  The states are on a knife’s edge.  The explosion of gun purchases could play a decisive role.   

The growth in background checks does not account for population changes.

Does a gun really matter?

In 10 of the last 12 presidential elections, a majority of gun owners supported Republican candidates.  And in 9 of those elections, a majority of non-gun owners preferred Democrats.  Even when the nation elected a Democrat in 1992, 2008, and 2012, a majority of gun owners remained loyal to Republicans.  

In 2016, the difference between the percentage of gun owner and non-gun owner households that voted for the Republican candidate reached 31 points.  In 2018, 61 percent of gun owners voted for congressional candidates compared to 26 percent of non-gun owners, a 35-point gun gap.     

Gun ownership also boosts Election Day turnout.  Across 12 presidential contests, reported turnout among gun owners typically exceeded that of non-gun owners.  For 2016, turnout was 6% higher among gun owners.     

More than one gun

Owning multiple guns strengthens the preference for a Republican candidate.  For example, less than a majority of single gun owners voted for Trump – 46%.  But nearly 70% of 4 or more gun owners did so (see graph). 

Owning numerous guns also increased the chances of voting on Election Day.  In 2016, 68% of the 4 plus gun category turned out to vote, compared to 59% of single gun owners, and 57% of non-gun owners.   

Implications

The lines forming in unemployment offices across the nation grab headlines.  And they should.  Historically, economic downturns harm the incumbent.  Voters blame the President for their vanishing economic opportunities.

However, let’s not overlook the lines wrapping around gun stores.  The available evidence suggests this phenomenon too will influence voters’ choices.   While the impact will never match economic concerns, extraordinary gun sales adds yet another variable to an uncertain political environment.    

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