Having begun my sojourn from the sociology of religion to the study of American gun culture a couple of years ago, I was excited to make a “homecoming” of sorts by attending the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Indianapolis this past weekend.
I was there to present my first paper on guns in America, an analysis of the relationship between faith and firearms ownership based on the General Social Survey (about which, more later).
I was excited to find another group of scholars – from Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion – working on the issue as well. For the first time, the nationally representative Baylor Religion Survey (fielded previously in 2005, 2007, 2010) included questions about gun ownership and attitudes toward guns. (See end of post for methodological details.)
These questions go beyond what is typically found in national surveys like the General Social Survey, and in combination with extensive questions about religiosity, makes for a promising set of data.
Specifically, in the section on “Guns and Society,” five questions are posed (each with a number of sub-parts):
Q68. For each item, please tell us how much, if at all, each of the following contributes to gun violence in the country: (a) The availability of guns. (b) The absence of God from our public schools and places. (c) Irresponsible gun owners. (d) Media violence such as in movies and video games. (e) Inadequate treatment of mentally ill people. (f) Inadequate background checks on gun purchases. Response categories are: a great deal, not so much, not at all.
Comment: I always try to approach the issue of “gun violence” cautiously, because I am not yet convinced there is something distinct about “gun violence” that merits its designation as a single entity, as opposed to “violence that involves guns” or “violence and guns.” But violence that involves guns is a serious concern among a large part of the American population and so it is good to ask about what people think its causes are (and are not).
One oversight here, I think, is the most significant contributor to gun violence in American society: criminal activity, especially drugs dealing and use, and gang activity (including respect killings related to the “code of the street.” (I made a presentation on this issue recently, which I will blog about soon.)
If I were a respondent to this survey, I would not be able to express this view – unless I counted criminals as “irresponsible gun owners,” but I don’t think that is what the survey authors intended for that response. I know media violence is not a major cause, and more extensive background checks are not going to stop criminals from shooting people.
Q69. Have you, or anyone you are close with, ever been threatened with a gun or shot at? Response categories are: yes or no.
Comment: What is the extent of people’s direct experience of violence with guns, and how might this affect their outlooks? I believe this is what this question is trying to get at.
Obviously, it would be interesting to distinguish between the respondent herself vs. others, and also being threatened vs. being shot at. But there are limits on how many questions you can ask on a survey like this (there were 99 total questions on the survey already), so combining several questions into a single question like this is not uncommon.
It would also be interesting to know whether the respondent, or anyone the respondent is close with, had ever brandished or shot a gun in self-defense, or found themselves in a situation in which they wished they had a gun for self-defense.
Those on the pro-gun side of the great American gun debate often accuse those who focus on the harmful effects of guns of not giving due attention to the beneficial effects of guns. This type of question will certainly be seen as coming from a position that is less sympathetic toward guns in general.
Q70. Please tell us whether you oppose or favor the following: (a) A ban on semi-automatic weapons. (b) Expanded gun safety programs. (c) Putting armed security guards/police in more schools. (d) Better mental health screening of gun buyers. (e) A ban on high-capacity ammunition clips that hold more than 10 bullets. (f) More teachers and school officials having guns. (g) Banning the possession of hand guns except by law enforcement. (h) Laws that allow citizens to carry concealed guns. Response categories are: favor or oppose.
Comment: I hope my readers who are part of one of America’s gun cultures will overlook the use of the term “clip” and “bullets” in subpart “e.” The scholars who put this survey together are experts in religion, not guns. But if you can get past that terminological issue, here you find an interesting mix of questions about laws or policies that address guns and safety. Some represent what are conventionally understood as “gun control” (subparts a, e, and g), some are ideas that come more from the pro-gun side (subparts c, f, and h – and I’m especially happy to see the question on concealed carry), and some could be interpreted in different ways depending on where the respondent is coming from (subparts b and d).
It’s good to have some survey questions available that go beyond one side’s definition of “common sense” gun laws. And perhaps having these different questions asked at the same time will allow us to see for the first time the diversity and complexity of people’s views about the various roles that guns can and should play in our society.
Q71. Do you happen to have in your home (or garage) any of the following: (Please mark all that apply.)
(a) Hand gun/revolver.
(b) Long gun
(c) Automatic/Semi-Automatic weapon
Comment: Here is a conventional gun ownership question, with a bit of a twist. The main question is the same as the General Social Survey, but the follow-up options differ. The GSS asks whether the person who owns a gun owns a handgun/revolver, a shotgun, or a rifle. Here shotgun and rifle are combined, and an additional response of “automatic/semi-automatic weapon” is added. The potential benefit of this approach is the ability to distinguish those who do NOT own automatic/semi-automatic weapons from those who do. Perhaps these are collectors of historic arms or true “Fudds” who would never hunt with anything other than a bolt action rifle or sporting gentleman who only use side-by-side shotguns.
With due respect to my colleagues, though, someone with some firearms experience should have looked these categories in advance because the qualitative and quantitative difference between ownership of “automatic” and “semi-automatic” weapons is ENORMOUS. Consequently, to the extent this question is used, I think the assumption will have to be that respondents who say “yes” to this question basically own semi-automatic weapons (since it is hard to imagine someone who owns a fully automatic weapon who does not own a semi-auto).
I would have been much more interested in knowing how many people own AR-15 style “modern sporting rifles” (a.k.a., “assault weapons”). Combining long gun and automatic/semi-automatic ownership categories doesn’t get at this, though, since it would also include a semi-auto shotgun, a Ruger 10-22 rifle, a Tommy Gun, and an M2 Browning, to name just a few.
Q72. If you own a gun, please indicate how strongly you agree or disagree with the following statement: Owning a gun makes me feel: (a) Safe. (b) Responsible. (c) Confident. (d) Patriotic. (e) In control of my fate. (f) More valuable to my family. (g) More valuable to my community. (h) Respected.
Comment: This promises to be some of the most interesting information that comes from the Baylor Religion Survey, because it goes beyond simply whether people own guns or not to get at some of the symbolic and affective meanings that people attach to gun ownership. We know something about this through qualitative studies like Abigail Kohn’s Shooters: Myths and Realities of America’s Gun Cultures, Jimmy Taylor’s American Gun Culture: Collectors, Shows, and the Story of the Gun, Joan Burbick’s Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy, Nancy Floyd’s She’s Got a Gun, and Jennifer Dawn Carlson’s forthcoming Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline. But it will be nice to have nationally-representative data on some of the things that are cultural causes and consequences of gun ownership. I think it will be particularly interesting to see what gender differences emerge in responses to these questions.
I am also working up a separate blog post specifically on Baylor sociologists F. Carson Mencken and Paul Froese’s presentation of some early analyses of this last question at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion meetings. Stay tuned for that.
In the end, the questions asked about guns on the Baylor Religion Survey are not perfect – which is to say, they are not what I would have asked. But some of them are quite ingenious – which is to say, they are smarter than what I would have asked. And they will contribute considerably to our understanding of American gun ownership and attitudes.
Unfortunately, the data will not be public for a year or two while the Baylor University researchers do their analyses. I for one will be anxiously awaiting their release, and looking forward to reports from Baylor in the meantime.
METHODOLOGICAL DETAILS: The 4th wave of the Baylor Religion Survey was fielded by mail (in English and Spanish) in collaboration with the Gallup Organization between January and March 2014. In the end, there were 1,572 respondents. The 15% response rate at first blush seems low, but comparisons with the General Social Survey show strong similarities on demographic characteristics (age, gender) and religious characteristics (religious attendance). Weights are also provided to correct for known differences between the survey sample and the American population. 40% of questions concern demographics and religious affiliation, beliefs, attitudes, behaviors. 60% topical modules, including 5 questions (with many subparts) on “guns and society.”