The Pew Research Center is often considered to be the authoritative source for figuring out what Americans think about a wide range of social, political and economic issues. Its survey findings are also used by many groups and organizations to help develop or shape their strategies for the kinds of public policies and the messaging about those policies that should be put forth into the public domain. In other words, when Pew says something about an issue like guns, people tend to listen. But the question has to be asked: what are they hearing?
This week Pew published, with appropriate fanfare, a detailed survey on what Americans think about guns. The results come from a “nationally representative panel of randomly selected U.S. adults,” whose answers are then weighted appropriately to take into account gender, age, race, region and the usual statistical blah, blah, blah which survey machers claim will make what they tell you to be more or less true.
I not only read every word of this report multiple times, I also closely read the detailed reports on each topic where I often found very important results that did not make it up to the overall summary of the report. Like they say, ‘the devil is in the details,’ and I therefore urge everyone who reads this document to get as granular as possible and read all the fine print.
The survey on which this report is based was conducted in April, which means that it was taken before the shooting of Scalise and the others last week. I suspect that if that same survey was conducted today that some of the attitudinal findings would be different on both sides, in particular respondent attitudes about regulating assault rifles and hi-cap mags
I’ll forego a discussion of the overall findings of this survey because that information will no doubt be broadcast here and there. I understand why pew ties so much of its survey findings (in this and every survey they conduct) to political leanings, votoing behavior and such. But probably 60% of all guns in the civilian arsenal can be found in 13 Confederate states, 3 border states and the rural parts of 4-5 midwestern states. Gee, what a surprise that the white residents in those places always, always vote resoundingly red. That’s new news?
There is, however, a remarkably interesting finding peeping out in the details covering gun-owning demographics, namely, that the percentage of people living in safe or unsafe neighborhoods who cited personal protection as the chief reason for having a gun was roughly the same. At the same time, nearly three-quarters of all gun owners who said that ‘the world’ was less safe cited personal protection as a reason for owning a gun, and nearly seven out of ten survey respondents, gun owners or not, said the world had become a less safe place.
These findings tell me that the spread of gun ownership and, in particular, the ownership of highly lethal but concealable handguns is not so much a function of people worrying about their personal safety, as it is about safety fears in a more general, almost generic sense. I’m not saying that people who buy or walk around with a concealed weapon are necessarily a threat to themselves or anyone else. On the other hand, don’t ask me how or why, but somehow an awful lot of those little guns get stolen or lost and wind up in the street.
If the gun violence prevention (GVP) community is looking for some messaging that will make people think twice before assuming they can protect themselves with a gun, they might think hard and long about the mentalities detailed above and ask themselves how to respond to a daily media bombardment which makes the average person feel unsafe in some general way because this so-called War on Terror just drags on and on.
Is America’s continued infatuation with guns a reaction to the age-old fears about ‘crime,’ or is it because we do not yet fully understand how and why we think about the risk of terror attacks?