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
|Year||0 guns||1 gun||2 guns||3 guns||4 + guns|
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.