Forget Democrat or Republican – the most polarizing characteristic in the U.S. might be whether or not you own a gun.
A study by Pew Research Center published Thursday interviewed 3,930 U.S. adults, including 1,269 gun owners, about their beliefs and habits about firearms. It found about 42 percent of people either own a gun personally or live in a home that contains a gun, and 57 percent live in a household with no guns. A majority of people have shot a gun in their lifetime.
Gun owners tend to feel that their firearms are part of their identity and freedom, which non-gun owners seem to have a hard time understanding. Half of gun owners said owning guns is at least somewhat important to their identity.
“One key and defining characteristic of gun owners is the extent to which they associate the right to own guns with their own personal sense of freedom – 74 percent of gun owners say this right is essential, compared with only 35 percent of non-gun owners who say the same,” the study found.
The report was published about a week after a shooting in Alexandria, Virginia at a Congressional baseball practice that injured five, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise. The shooter, James T. Hodgkinson, of Belleville, Illinois, was a legal gun owner and used two guns in the incident, one he obtained in 2003 and the other in 2016. He had previously been charged with domestic battery and had past complaints about his gun use that resulted in no charges.
While gun ownership spans demographics, the group most likely to own guns are white men who live in rural areas. Men who own guns are also more likely than women to immerse themselves in the culture of gun ownership, such as going to a shooting range, gun shows or hunting.
Two-thirds of people say they own a gun mainly for protection, with hunting the next largest reason, at 38 percent. Many people cited multiple reasons for gun ownership, and the majority of people who are gun owners have more than one – 29 percent of gun owners surveyed owned five or more firearms.
While there are many areas of agreement on gun safety between those who own firearms and those who do not – not allowing the mentally ill to buy guns, preventing those on no-fly lists from buying firearms and talking to children about gun safety – an area of huge disagreement between owners and non-owners is how owners should store their guns.
“The majority of Americans who don’t own guns feel it is also essential for gun owners with children living in the home to keep their guns unloaded and in a separate spot from the ammunition,” the study says. “Gun owners disagree. Majorities say these measures are either important but not essential or not important, even in households with children.”
Even among gun owners who have children, 30 percent say they have at least one firearm that is both easily accessible and loaded in their homes. Past research has shown guns in a home are 22 times more likely to be used in an assault or homicide, an accidental shooting, a suicide or an attempted suicide than they are to be used for self-defense.
Gun owners and non-owners can’t even agree on whether gun violence is a major problem in the U.S. While 59 percent of non-owners describe it as a big problem only a third of gun owners say the same. There have been 206 mass shootings so far in 2017, according to Mass Shooting Tracker, which have killed a total of 290 people and injured hundreds of others. There were 477 mass shootings in 2016, which have killed 606 people.