Public Release: 

Gun owners more likely to distrust the federal government

Ohio State University

COLUMBUS, Ohio - A new nationwide study confirms the popular notion that people who own guns are more likely than others to have little confidence in the federal government.

Using a nationwide sample, sociologists Robert Jiobu and Timothy Curry at Ohio State University found that gun owners had less faith than non-owners in the government, even after they controlled for a variety of other factors that may affect gun ownership.

"Far from being a characteristic of a small minority, distrust of the federal government is widespread, a finding that has been reported before," said Jiobu, an associate professor at Ohio State. "We found that these people who don't have faith in the government are more likely to own guns."

The study was published in a recent issue of the journal Social Science Quarterly. The researchers analyzed data collected between 1988 and 1996 from the General Social Survey (GSS), which included interviews with a total of 6,576 people.

Participants were asked several questions about how much confidence they had in the people who ran the three branches of the federal government.

Nearly half of the Americans surveyed - 43.9 percent -- had hardly any confidence in one or more branches of the federal government, a finding that supports other studies.

Results showed that of those respondents who said they had a great deal of faith in all three branches of government, only 23 percent owned a firearm - compared to a 37 percent gun ownership rate among those who had hardly any faith in any branch of the federal government.

The results held firm even after the researchers controlled for a variety of other factors that may affect whether people own guns. These included things such as political ideology, gender, age, education, general fear of crime, and whether the respondents had been crime victims in the previous year. They also controlled for whether participants or someone in their household hunted, what region of the country they lived in and whether they lived in a city, in the suburbs or in a rural area.

The results also held true no matter who was President at the time of the survey: Ronald Reagan, George Bush or Bill Clinton.

Curry, also an associate professor at Ohio State, said people who don't trust the government may be more likely to own guns because firearms offer a "symbolic empowerment" to owners.

"For some people, guns represent freedom and the ability to protect themselves," Curry said. "Guns are seen as a little bit of protection in an otherwise chaotic world."

People who don't trust the government may own guns because they are afraid that the federal government may try to take their rights away, Curry said. Or, they may not fear the government itself, but may believe the government will not be able to protect them from outside forces.

The results suggest efforts to control the sale of handguns may have some unintended consequences. "To mandate decreased gun ownership through gun control legislation may only encourage those people who have little faith in the government to stockpile weapons," Jiobu said.

Understanding that some people own guns because of their lack of trust in government can shed some light on the gun control debate, according to Curry.

"We have to understand that for many people, the gun is an icon for evil and violence, while for others that same gun is an icon for democracy and personal empowerment," he said. "Until that is understood, neither side of the debate will be able to understand how the other side can be so blind to the 'truth.'"

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Written by Jeff Grabmeier, 614-292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu

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