Americans are buying more guns than ever before and the gun-owner vote is still ignored.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, widespread unemployment and persistent protests against racial injustice, anxious Americans in 2020 have purchased a record number of guns. 

The figures are unprecedented.  Beginning in March, monthly background checks shattered historical highs.  Just last month, Americans bought an estimated 1.9 million guns, the sixth-highest month on record.  Year-to-date sales (January to September 2020) stand at nearly 17 million, already exceeding the annual record set in 2016.   The National Sports Shooting Foundation estimates 40% of sales were to buyers who have never owned a firearm.   

The implications of the buying frenzy are framed in typical news media fashion.  From a gun rights perspective, the proliferation of firearms affirms Americans’ belief in the Second Amendment.  And from a gun control vantage-point, the millions of additional guns invite grave new dangers into already stressed out households.

Both sides have a point. 

However, instead of examining the consequences of this extraordinary run on guns from the conventional lens of gun violence, let’s consider another approach entirely missing from political discourse.   

Gun sales and voting behavior

As demonstrated in my new book, The Gun Gap, in 10 of the last 12 presidential elections, a majority of gun owners supported Republican candidates.  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 an astonishing 31 points. 

Gun owner loyalty extends to congressional GOP candidates as well.  In 2018, for example, 61 percent of gun owners voted for Republican congressional candidates compared to 26 percent of non-gun owners, a 35-point gun gap.  Equally large gaps date back to the late 1990s. 

To be sure, this does not mean purchasing a gun in March produces a Republican vote in November.  The surge in gun sales includes many buyer’s hostile to Trump and Republicans generally. 

I am asserting that gun ownership, like other group associations, 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 and persistent predictor of voter choice.

Moreover, gun ownership boosts voter turnout.  Gun owners are in fact reliable voters.  For every presidential election since 1972, gun owner’s reported turnout exceeded that of non-owners – the difference expanded to 13% in 2004.  Validated turnout figures confirm self-reported vote differences.  In 2016, for example, validated turnout among gun owners was 6% higher than non-gun owners.  

More than one gun

In addition, owning multiple guns intensifies the preference for a Republican candidate and markedly improves a gun owner’s chances of voting on Election Day.  For example, less than a majority of single gun owners voted for Trump four year ago – 46%.  But nearly 70% of owners having 4 or more guns did so.

The story is the same for voter turnout.   In 2016, 57% of non-gun owners voted in the presidential contest.  Turnout among those who own one gun was 59%.  Those that own two guns turned out at a rate of 61%, and 3 guns raised turnout to 65%.  Finally, those that owned 4 or more guns exhibited the highest turnout at nearly 70%!  The 2014 midterm election produced a similar pattern.  In short, gun owners are active voters.

Number of guns owned and validated turnout        

Year0 guns1 gun2 guns3 guns4 + guns
201657%59616568
20143335393746
Source: The Gun Gap p.95

Looking ahead

While hundreds of news articles contemplate which swing state voting blocs will be decisive – suburban women or rural men, African-Americans or Latinos, high or low income, aged or youth, less or more educated, undecideds or determined partisans – gun owners who represent nearly a third of the population and 40% of households are rarely if ever mentioned.  This is especially puzzling considering the record-breaking number of guns sold in battleground states this year. 

The extraordinary gun sales boom matters.  Certainly, a gun alone does not convert a strong Democrat to vote for Trump.  Nevertheless, the data strongly suggest that a new gun purchase, or repeated gun buying, increases the chances that an Independent or weak partisan will vote Republican.   

Furthermore, the explosion in gun sales motivates gun-rights groups to transform first-time owners into new gun-rights voters.  Given the historically tight margins in many races across the nation, the gun-rights group’s success could conceivably alter local and state campaigns as well as the federal contests.

In the long term, new owners will seek training and spend time practicing at shooting ranges and perhaps even take up hunting.  They will receive information from gun-rights organizations, join gun-rights groups and interact with other new and long-time gun owners.  Undoubtedly, this enormous wave of new and repeated gun buyers will impact the future of gun policy across the nation.

Finally, guns are increasingly markers of specific social and political worldviews.  They provoke strong partisan reactions and prompt heated debates and policy disagreements.  Yet pollsters and academics repeatedly fail to recognize gun owners as an important and potentially decisive group in electoral politics. 

We all missed it in 2016, and despite record-breaking gun sales this year, gun owners remain invisible in the national discourse.   

4 thoughts on “Americans are buying more guns than ever before and the gun-owner vote is still ignored.

  1. as always, interesting take on how certain things can influence the direction of personal vote choice. I would love to see information as to WHY this consequential GUN GAP is not given its credit as a prominent factor in a voter’s party preference and predilection to turn out. It certainly can’t be a more controversial subject of discussion than race relations, can it?

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    1. A question I can certainly answer. In writing the book, this same question occupied my thinking. How could scholars and the news media simply ignore the pattern? First, political scientists are not trained to consider gun ownership as important. Typical groupings such as gender, region, race, age, education, wealth, etc. are considered legitimate and so the incentives all point in that direction. Entire careers are built around research concerning one or another such group. Once accepted and considered acceptable, then research goes forward – regardless of the strength of associations found in the data. There are scholars that examine the NRA, but that’s typically within the setting of institutional lobbying — not mass politics. Second, many political behavior scholars think the patterns observed in the data are largely the consequence of intense partisanship. So, they wave their hands and disregard it. This was one reason for the book — I show after taking into consideration party ID – and ideological identification – that gun ownership remains an important variable in understanding political attitudes and behavior. And, the effect on various behavioral measures including vote preference and vote turnout increased over the years. Third, the news media is obsessed with certain groups across specific elections. In 2000, guns and therefore gun owners emerged as an important issue — many Democrats actually attributed Gore’s close defeat to gun owners’ vote in his home state (which Gore lost). At the loss, Democrats reconsidered their tough rhetoric on gun ownership and regulation and for the next election cycle were far less aggressive toward gun ownership. But after losing 2004, with a gun friendly candidate in John Kerry, they returned to the harsher orientation toward gun ownership. Fourth, if there ever was a time to focus on gun ownership it was 2016. But the media was so occupied by the gender gap (Trump’s Hollywood tape comments and many other such incidents) it blinded them to other ‘gaps’ that existed. Now, with covid-19 and economic uncertainty, gun owners are once again ignored. Change takes time and the academy is stubborn. Even though the pollsters and academics were wrong in 2016, they still use the same grouping to understand American political behavior. Finally, according to some, a gun does not produce a group orientation. It is an object and a consumer product – not an inherent characteristic nor a strongly socialized attribute. So, many simply reject the entire idea. Sometimes reality does not matter 🙂 Thanks for this question.

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  2. Mark, This is very thought provoking, I’ve been thinking about this since I first read it. I was thinking if there is some other commercial good that defines someone’s identity so profoundly? The rights in the First Amendment are “free”, right? We don’t have to buy newspapers, Bibles, Torahs, or Korans, etc to enjoy these rights (although cash helps if one wants to organize a group based on these principles). But gun ownership, one has to buy it store it, and maintain it. It just seems curious to me that gun ownership is so important to people this way.

    Also, I wonder what sorts of effects are seen on those who own no guns, versus 1 gun, versus an arsenal? That is, what sorts of differences are seen among gun owners 1 vs the 4 gunners? One might own 1 gun because they’re scared of crime and victimhood but another might own a bunch of guns because they might have to take on the govt or some other reason?

    On a side note, I once had a guy in class who ran a pawn shop (gun shop) and I noted a stat that people who own guns are more likely to hurt a family member with a gun and his response was, “well, yeah.”

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    1. Hey Alex, I do not think there is another product that defines people in this way – at least not politically. Part of the attachment concerns the 2nd amendment and the capacity for people to protect themselves and their families. A relevant larger value here is individualism – self reliance and suspicion of government. Indeeed for many people, guns offer basic security and a means to manage uncertainty and fear. For others, guns are passed down through families and special moments are associated with guns — a grandfather teaches his grandchildren how to shoot, or they go hunting, etc. Indeed, guns offer social connections and develop communities – from gun clubs, hunting groups, target practice, to larger political groups like the NRA or NSSF. Firearms occupy an important place in our belief systems and our understanding of history and society. Watch any Hollywood movie. In short, guns are embedded in our culture like no other product. Some people are more attached to guns than others — I use the number of guns to proxy that attachment or interest/use of firearms — similar to many other groups attachments. The vast majority of gun owners do support typical gun control measures – like background checks and certain gun bans. But, of course, the loud extremes on both sides tend to occupy the news media.

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