LAWRENCE — Increasingly in presidential elections since 1972, a partisan divide has emerged around guns, as someone who owns one is more likely to support a Republican candidate, according to a new study by University of Kansas researchers.
"While this 'gun divide' mimics growing partisan division in the country, it is more than that," said Mark Joslyn, professor of political science and the study's lead author. "Gun ownership may include an identity, a long-standing culture that shares identifiable traits and behaviors. The identity appears to have strengthened in recent years, and opposition to it has grown as well."
Joslyn said typically researchers looked at "what guns do," and therefore, past research has examined the association between crime and violence and the prevalence or availability of guns. However, Joslyn and his co-authors, as part of their recent study published in Social Science Quarterly, examined what guns mean to individuals and how this can shape political behavior.
"In addition, it appears non-gun owners are especially sensitive to recent polarization trends, favoring Democratic candidates in a substantially greater degree than in the past decades," Joslyn said. "So while we believe the electoral choices of gun owners is important, much of the increase in differences between gun and non-gun owners occurred because of the choices of non-gun owners."
The researchers examined data from the General Social Survey from 1972 to 2012 of presidential election voters, which included questions about if respondents lived in a home with a gun and if he or she owned it.
His co-authors are Don Haider-Markel, professor and chair of KU's Department of Political Science, and KU political science graduate students Michael Baggs and Andrew Bilbo. The study was part of a special journal issue, "Gun Politics," which Joslyn and Haider-Markel edited.
In this paper, they found throughout more recent elections, owning a gun versus not owning one increased the likelihood of voting for a Republican candidate. This effect was independent of other conventional factors of voter choice, including party identification, ideology, race, gender, education and age.
"The effect is also very consistent, more so than many of the demographic determinants of voter choice," Joslyn said. "In every election since 1972, gun ownership is an important predictor of voter choice."
The disparity grew substantially and peaked during Barack Obama's 2012 victory, they found.
The issue and the divide surrounding it are important to explore as policymakers continue to grapple with public safety, the researchers said.
"Undoubtedly, recurrent mass shootings and terror attacks showcase gun violence and appear to amplify friction between gun control and gun right advocates," Joslyn said. "State legislatures and Congress continue to consider restrictions on gun access, even while many states enhance the ability of citizens to carry concealed firearms. Yet all of this political activity only reminds us of our own lack of knowledge about firearms."
Researchers and public officials likely need to do more to examine what guns symbolize to gun owners and how they perceive them in vastly different terms than those who don't own a gun, the researcher said.
"Gun owners represent just about one-third of American households. They are a large group with significant support from powerful interest groups," Joslyn said. "Yet media surveys taken after the vote typically do not even include questions about gun ownership. Why? We do not know. What we do know is that very little research effort is devoted to understanding the political attitudes and behaviors of gun owners."