Demography & Democracy of Gun Ownership

A look into gun ownership demographics and what it means for democracy.

by J. L. Hamilton | December 13, 2018 3:50 PM

As the gun control debate lingers on in American politics, I thought it would be a good idea to look at the data in order to ground the discussion and talk a little bit about how the SRA aims to restore a key component of democracy to American discourse. To facilitate this discussion, we'll be looking at a report published by the  Pew Research Center  in June of last year. This demographic data for gun ownership in America is the most up-to-date data on the subject, which is good news for us. Let's take a look at why guns are such a contentious issue in America.

Gun owners vs non-gun owners

Around 30% of Americans say they currently own a gun, while around 70% say they do not. Of those who do not own a gun, 11% say they live with someone who does. Of that 70%, 36% say they could see themselves owning a gun in the future while 33% say they will never, ever own a gun. In real terms, ~73 million Americans out of ~320 million Americans say they will never own a gun. This is a large contingent, but definitely not a majority and there may be a few reasons for their disapproval of firearms generally.

Gun owners who are men vs gun owners who are women

For starters, there is a noticeable gender gap in firearm ownership. While 39% of men are gun owners, only 22% of women can say the same. I think most people already know this, but it is interesting to see the data.

Racial composition of gun owners in America

And while 36% of whites report that they are gun owners, only about a quarter of blacks (24%) and 15% of Hispanics say they own a gun. White men are especially likely to be gun owners: About half (48%) say they own a gun, compared with about a quarter of white women and nonwhite men (24% each) and 16% of nonwhite women.

% of those who believe owning a gun is essential to their sense of freedom

Unsurprisingly, politics also plays a major role in gun ownership. When asked, conservative Republicans were far more likely (95%) to say that gun ownership was essential to their sense of freedom than liberal Democrats (29%). I was personally surprised to see so many liberal Democrats holding this viewpoint, but the data doesn't lie.

To sum things up, our suspicions are correct: Passionate gun owners overwhelmingly tend to be conservative white men. And this is a problem for democracy.

The best democracy is one in which the people feel certain in their own ability to influence the future of their government. Without voter confidence, democracy is fragile and may not stand the test of time. And when the citizenry does not share power equally, any devolution in state resiliency may result in the more powerful group ruling over the less powerful group. In social science, this phenomenon is known as the "inequality of bargaining power" and the degree to which it is prevalent in a society denotes how far removed from a pure democracy that society is. Max Weber, academic colleague of Karl Marx in the discipline of sociology, defines power as "the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will, despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests." My worry, then, is borne out of the combination of two facts:

  1. 1. Those with firearms maintain greater levels of power than those without.

  2. 2. Conservative white men control a disproportionate share of the firearms within the United States.

In effect, the "bargaining power" of minorities is at risk of being exploited as the institution of liberal "democracy" crumbles in the US. Those familiar with Marx's theory of dialectical materialism probably already know where I'm going with this.  As income inequality skyrockets, the likelihood of political decisions being made democratically within the established system diminishes rapidly.  The rise of the "alt-right" and other neo-Nazi factions, as well as the election of Donald Trump on the promise of his campaign to crack down on illegal immigration, are not oddities of a new generation; nationalism is given air to breathe precisely because of widespread poverty, poor access to healthcare, suspicion of the "other", and propagandistic media. And, unfortunately for us,  income inequality in the US continues to climb , meaning those already predisposed to evil ideology will continue to turn out in larger numbers.

What happens if electoral politics takes a backseat to political violence and those committing the violence have most or all of the bargaining power?

Over the past two years, we have witnessed:

Statistically speaking, the white male with guns majority is most likely to assume the role of Brownshirt should the political process break down. This is not to say all white male gun owners are to be feared; there are plenty of poor white people who are not racist. But poverty has no correlation with fascist sympathies or a desire to commit genocide, which means the rise in ultra-nationalism we are seeing now is unlikely to go away even if legislative reforms restore a strong middle class. We are forced, then, to restore equality to the country's political bargaining power out of necessity. However, there are only a handful of options available to us. We could attempt to ban all guns in order to strip the majority of its power, but this feat is nearly impossible at present and the reactionaries' power continues to grow.

Therefore, our future bargaining power lies in the armament of minorities and the left generally while simultaneously advocating for democratic reforms at the national level. We should fight for more democracy in our elections, but we must build our bargaining power now in case democracy fails us. Attempting just one of these paths forward without also pursuing the other may mean failing to achieve one or both. Every political activist calling for the end of the Electoral College should be a gun owner also. Every voter advocating for ranked-choice voting at the polls should be a gun owner. Every Democratic Socialist should be a gun owner and so on until our bargaining power matches or exceeds those of the reactionaries.

This is the way we protect ourselves. This is the way we keep us safe.