Jan Dizard, 77, a professor emeritus at Amherst College who splits time between western Massachusetts and California, is a registered Democrat and a self-described environmentalist. He’s also a life-long gun owner who patronizes both his local rod and gun club and bird dog association.
Although Dizard acknowledges that he’s “by far the furthest left [politically] of anybody in the club,” being a liberal gun owner hardly makes him a unicorn.
If a left-leaning gun owner seems unusual, it’s in part because there are critical gaps in our nation’s collective understanding about who owns firearms in America and what they use them for.
Dizard stands in contrast to the 87,000 Americans at last weekend’s record-breaking annual NRA conference, where attendees told a HuffPost reporter that the media focuses a disproportionate amount of coverage on gun violence and ignores positive stories about firearms. “They are censoring what the true pulse of the citizenry thinks,” said Brian Lilly, 49, who attended the conference for the first time this year with his 18-year-old son.
Outside of that core pro-NRA group, however, identifying as a gun owner can be politically fraught. In pockets of the country, some owners don’t feel comfortable revealing their status at all. And a dearth of scientific research on guns and gun ownership ― thanks in part to lobbying efforts conducted by the NRA ― contributes to our national ignorance about who owns guns and why.
The best estimates put the number of guns in America at about 300 million, which are owned by an estimated 32 to 42 percent of Americans, according to polls by Pew, Gallup and the General Social Survey. But it’s difficult to find a more precise measure through polling alone, and Congress doesn’t adequately fund peer-reviewed research on the issue.
The lack of research about legal and illegal gun-owner behavior prevents us from scientifically measuring the causes of gun violence, which in turn influences the kind of laws passed to address the 11,000 homicides, 22,000 suicides and tens of thousands of non-fatal shootings that happen in the United States each year. Public health experts believe that many of those 33,000 annual deaths are preventable.
In the absence of hard data about gun owners, media organizations tend to focus on telling the stories of vocal gun rights activists and bedrock NRA supporters. That’s despite the fact that of the nation’s estimated 73 to 81 million gun owners, the NRA claims just under 5 million Americans as members ― or fewer than 8 percent of all gun owners.
To learn about the more than 90 percent of gun owners who don’t fall into this category, HuffPost conducted its own survey of gun owners, in collaboration with YouGov, to interrogate why the majority of gun owners aren’t members of the NRA. HuffPost also ran an informal, supplemental Twitter poll soliciting gun owners’ rationale for declining NRA membership.
The results complicated the narrative of red-state gun owners on one side and blue-state gun control advocates on the other, and unearthed bits of common ground among gun-owning Americans, including about gun safety.
Among the non-NRA gun owners who participated in the HuffPost/YouGov poll in April, nearly half said they didn’t think NRA membership would benefit them personally. One in four respondents selected the response “I disagree with the NRA’s political beliefs” as a reason they chose not to join. Another 22 percent of respondents said they didn’t feel that the NRA represented people like them (whether that was because they didn’t feel like they fit the demographic profile of a typical NRA member ― Republican, middle-aged, white and male ― or another reason wasn’t clear). Respondents were allowed to select multiple options.
Twenty-three percent of respondents felt that NRA membership, which costs $40 per year or $1,500 for a lifetime membership, was “too expensive” to justify joining the organization. “I’m frugal,” one respondent noted.
Sixteen percent of respondents answered “none of the above” about why they weren’t members, which may reflect gun owners who hold beliefs that mirror those of the NRA, even if they aren’t active members, and those who unintentionally let their memberships lapse.
“I will likely join with the big anti-gun push currently going on,” one respondent wrote.
Twelve percent of respondents said they didn’t want to make it public that they owned a gun, which could mean not wanting to flaunt their gun ownership status or that they worried about the possibility of theft.
Another eight percent said they didn’t know how to go about joining the group.
Some respondents felt protections offered by the Constitution trumped anything the NRA could offer.
“My right to own a gun is protected under the Constitution and I don’t need a lobbyist to tell me this,” was a common sentiment among the seemingly libertarian and constitutionalist gun owners who said they didn’t join clubs or associations on principle, or felt the Second Amendment was a stronger ally to gun owners than the NRA.
Write-ins that didn’t fall into a neat category included, “Guns aren’t that important to me,” “Our whole family is talking about joining,” and a swipe at the NRA’s marketing tactics: “They hounded me for money and sent me flashlights, repeatedly,” one former member wrote.
A number of write-in responses criticized the NRA’s conservative stance on gun safety and close ties to conservative politics. “[The NRA has] many stupid stances; some clips and firearms need to be banned,” wrote one respondent. Others lamented the organization’s political and business ties, noting that the NRA “is the lapdog of the gun and ammunition industries,” and “a branch of the Republican Party.”
Multiple gun owners pinpointed the NRA’s CEO and executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, as the reason they declined to join the organization. LaPierre is well known for using fearmongering tactics to try to convince Americans about the necessity of guns, ranging from potential to highly improbable threats to Americans’ safety, including hurricanes, tornadoes, riots, terrorists, gangs, “lone criminals,” crime, drug gangs, Euro-style debt riots, civil unrest and natural disasters.
LaPierre’s antagonistic rhetoric has earned him enemies in high places. In 1995, former president George H. W. Bush famously published his lifetime NRA member resignation letter in The New York Times after LaPierre, in an NRA fundraising letter, referred to Bush’s federal agents as “jack-booted thugs.”
In today’s political environment, a Republican politician denouncing the NRA seems unthinkable. But the party has shifted significantly to the right since Bush’s letter. The organization, which was founded as a marksmanship group in 1871 by a former New York Times reporter, had evolved into a gun safety and training club by the 1970s, and itself took a hard turn rightward under LaPierre, as many survey respondents noted.
Today’s modern-day lobbying enterprise bears little resemblance to the NRA’s marksmanship and safety roots, and that evolution has succeeded in alienating some of the organization’s moderate and independent former members.
“I was a member when they were a sporting organization,” one gun owner wrote. “Now they are a political lobbying group with which I usually disagree.” Said another: “I was a Life Member from 1967 to 2016, when I resigned due to LaPierre and terrible policies toward gun laws.”
While the HuffPost/YouGov and Twitter polls can’t take the place of broad-scale, peer-reviewed research, the various points of view reflected in them point to a more politically diverse gun owner than is typically represented in the nation’s polarizing gun debate. That issue largely relies on the simplistic narrative that gun owners support Republican candidates and gun rights policies and that non-gun owners support Democratic candidates and gun control policies.
“It is unwise to assume that all gun owners are Republicans,” said Carson Mencken, a professor of sociology at Baylor University. Data from Baylor surveys shows that more than 20 percent of gun owners report being liberal or very liberal, while 50 percent of gun owners are conservative or very conservative, Mencken explained.
Although there’s a sizable cohort of gun owners who fall into the independent, progressive, libertarian, constitutionalist or pro-gun regulation camps, there’s no discernible group representing any or all of them that counterbalances the NRA’s influence on money and politics.
The lack of a countervailing lobbying force amounts to a major gap in the political market, according to Patrick Adler, a researcher at the Martin Prosperity Institute, a think tank at the University of Toronto‘s Rotman School of Management.
In Adler’s mind, there’s room for a gun rights organization for independent and Democratic gun owners. “Can a ‘J Street for guns’ emerge?” he asked, referencing the advocacy group which emerged as a counter to the more right-wing AIPAC lobby. “If it does it might be even more successful than J Street itself.”
Gun policy is complicated. Gun owners who support background checks don’t necessarily support bans on AR-15s, and vice versa. It’s not clear that a unified independent and progressive pro-gun group would represent the interests of its members any better than the NRA supports its own.
Still, there is some indication that the political winds could be changing. Vermont Gov. Phil Scott recently passed a package of firearms restrictions in his pro-gun, liberal state that included raising the minimum age to purchase a gun to 21, enhancing background checks and banning high-capacity magazines and bump stocks.
And while some Vermont-based gun rights advocates spoke out against the governor, other gun owners in Vermont have stepped up to challenge the NRA.
“What put me over the edge was this series of recent tragedies, both in schools and in other areas, and they just never budged,” John Liccardi, a 73-year-old hunter from Rutland, Vermont, who supported renewing a ban on assault-style weapons, including bump stocks, told the New York Times.
Liccardi, who in March penned an op-ed titled “Ashamed of the NRA” for the Vermont-based nonprofit journalism website VTDigger, wasn’t previously involved in the national gun debate in any public way.
“If there ever is going to be any progress in sensible gun ownership and control,” Liccardi explained, “it has to be from the middle ground.”
The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted April 3-4 among U.S. adults using a sample selected from YouGov’s opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.
HuffPost has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov’s nationally representative opinion polling. More details on the polls’ methodology are available here.
Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some, but not all, potential survey errors. YouGov’s reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.