In the wake of a horrific school shooting in Newtown, Conn., lawmakers and activists have come forward to demand a serious discussion about gun control in America. The National Rifle Association has been silent, while the president has said we have an “obligation” to try to prevent another massacre at the hands of a crazed gunman.
But who actually owns guns in America—and why? Surely, they can’t all be Adam Lanzas.
To find out, we asked our readers a simple question: Why do you own a gun? And if you don’t own a gun, why not?
Almost immediately, the answers came pouring in. As of Tuesday evening, more than a thousand people had submitted answers—nearly 600 who own guns, and the rest who don’t. The anonymity of the Internet and Twitter character counts do not always lend themselves to thoughtfulness and insight, but many readers seemed eager to put hyperbole and political expediency aside.
Some offerings were misguided attempts at humor—from both sides of the fence. Others were downright puerile. Many of the responses we received, however, were both civil and illuminating. The gun owners were not radical fantasists intent on the violent overthrow of the government. The non-gun owners did not wave the bloody shirt. Taken together, they represent the kind of conversation about gun ownership that responsible Americans should be having—both on the public airwaves and in their living rooms.
Among the gun owners, some common threads emerged. Readers from rural areas said that they own guns for practical concerns, like personal safety in homes located far from law enforcement, or as a necessary tool for their livelihoods.
“We target shoot. We live in a rural area with livestock,” LP from Colorado said. “We have to be able to defend ourselves from aggressive wildlife, put an animal out of its misery if it is severely injured, and defend ourselves in our isolated environment. People are responsible with their guns here.”
A respondent from New Mexico said he or she owns a “.22 pistol to shoot rattlesnakes only in my yard.”
Hunters, not surprisingly, represented a good number of gun owners who responded to our survey. “I grew up in a family that hunted and fished,” said Jeff from Minnesota. “However, I do believe that private ownership of semi-automatic and automatic guns and handguns should be totally prohibited. I am perfectly willing to give up all of my guns for the greater good.”
A third group of gun owners was made up of hobbyists. An anonymous reader from Minnesota wrote that he or she owns a gun “because the hunting and shooting culture I grew up in taught me to respect life, my elders, and firearms. The relationship between me and my father that developed out of firearms and hunting is incredibly meaningful and the most positive one in my life.”
“It’s a family heirloom,” Regina from Maine said of the gun she owns. “It’s a breech-loading deer shotgun that was passed from my grandfather to my dad to me.”
In a number of cases, readers who owned guns said that they also support more stringent restrictions on the ease with which people can purchase firearms. “I enjoy shooting,” wrote a respondent from Colorado. “Mine are kept locked and disassembled. Ammunition is kept separately. I grew up with firearms but support much tighter controls on firearms.”
“I want to be prepared to defend my family and home,” wrote Scott from Alabama. “However, access to guns through shows must be prohibited, and more extensive background checks with longer waiting periods seems a good step in the right direction. Elimination of all high capacity mags should also be strongly considered.”
In the same way that many readers who own guns were willing to explore the idea of new and more effective restrictions on gun ownership, readers who said they do not have guns often framed their decision as a personal one. Guns may work for other people, they said, but they are certainly not for everyone.
“Shooting sports are fun, and legitimate,” Andy from Texas wrote of why he chooses not to own a gun. “But the anxieties of the self-defense crowd are just too much for me. I refuse to believe there are that many bogeymen in the world.”
“I don’t need one today, but would want the option to buy one if I change my mind. I could agree with special, renewable permits/licenses and required annual safety training for owners,” wrote one anonymous reader.
Other respondents wrote that they see no need to put the fearsome power of a firearm in the hands of civilians, outside of controlled circumstances like hunting. Christina from California wrote that “the purpose of a gun is to kill someone or something. God is the judge of people’s actions, not me. You don’t need an assault weapon to kill a deer or pheasant. If your life feels threatened, you are in the wrong place.”
“I have curious kids,” wrote Matt from Maryland in a post that summed up many respondents’ feelings about the unreliable hands even a legally purchased weapon might fall in to. “I might lose my job or my wife and have a nervous breakdown.”
The readers who responded to The Daily Beast’s question are undoubtedly an imperfect sampling of Americans. There are reasons to suspect, however, that the impression they give of a country not divided into gun nuts and bleeding-heart liberals is accurate. Conservative Democratic congressmen, including lifelong NRA member Senator Joe Manchin, have shown interest in taking on gun laws after Newtown. While both President Obama and Mitt Romney for the most part stayed away from talking about restrictions on guns during their presidential campaigns, Americans have never stopped debating the issue. The great majority of NRA members support restrictions on gun ownership for domestic-violence offenders, as well as criminal background checks on all gun buyers.
Asking difficult questions about gun ownership in America may not be easy, but it is possible. Even on the Internet.