Almost a third of American adults own a gun, but the rate varies widely by state and tops out at almost 62 percent of people in Alaska, new survey data show.
Gun ownership was closely tied to “social gun culture,” wherein family and friends also own guns and think less of non-gun owners, researchers found.
“Considering the presence of deeply rooted gun culture and the estimated number of guns in the U.S. to be 310 million, we (suspected) that social gun culture is associated with gun ownership,” said lead author Dr. Bindu Kalesan of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York.
“This association was strong even after removing the effect of other factors such as presence of gun laws and gun deaths,” Kalesan told Reuters Health by email.
The researchers used data from a 2013 online survey of 4,000 people over age 18 from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Participants were selected to be representative of the U.S. population as a whole.
About 29 percent of people nationwide reported owning a gun. Only five percent of people in Delaware and six percent in Rhode Island owned a gun, compared to almost 62 percent in Alaska.
More than half of people reported owning a gun in West Virginia, Arkansas, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Regionally, gun ownership was least common in the Northeast and most common in the South and West.
About 5 percent of people said they used their gun for hunting, and 10 percent reported attending gun safety classes.
The authors found that 32 percent of gun owners were exposed to “social gun culture” compared to six percent of non-gun owners.
White males over age 55 were most likely to own guns, compared to other demographics, according to a report of the study in Injury Prevention.
In general, gun ownership is on the decline in the U.S., although sales are up, so those who do own them may be buying more than one, Kalesan said.
In comparison with other developed countries, ownership of guns by civilians in the U.S. is extremely high, she said.
Australia, faced with increased gun deaths, made it mandatory to turn in guns in 1996, and since then gun deaths have plummeted, she said.
In the new survey, gun ownership was least common in states with stricter gun control policies, but it is not clear whether those laws change the culture of the state, or if the culture of the state brings the laws about, according to Dr. Michael Siegel of the department of Community Health Sciences at Boston University School of Public Health.
Siegel was not part of the new study.
“It is well established that higher gun ownership levels by state are tied to higher homicide levels,” he told Reuters Health by phone. “No one has asked the question of why certain states have higher ownership rates.”
“Gun culture” may explain it, and may help public health experts implement policies to decrease gun prevalence, he said.
Decades of public health messaging, TV and media campaigns have successfully changed the social norms surrounding tobacco, another public health hazard, and smoking has been on the decline, Siegel said.
“It’s pretty widely acknowledged that people shouldn’t smoke in public,” he said. “Someone may say with guns, there’s no way you can change social norms about that, but we would have said that about smoking 30 or 40 years ago.”
Owning a firearm has health effects, increasing the probability of your own injury, and education campaigns could highlight this, he said.
“It’s not clear that it will protect you,” Siegel said. “There’s a lot of evidence that it results in accidents, and is more likely to be used in a way that injures the owner or someone in the household.”
Other industrialized countries do not tolerate the problem of gun violence, but for some reason people in the U.S. do, he said.
“Do we really want to accept this? We don’t have to accept the way things are, we can change our culture,” he said.
Policy makers should keep in mind the pervasive gun culture and the strong association with gun ownership, Kalesan said.
Universal background checks for purchasing guns and ammunition tend to be the most effective laws in discouraging gun ownership, she said.