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Many gun owners support gun control. So why don't they speak out?

Neighbors Richard Small (left), a Republican and longtime NRA member, and Gerardo Marquez, a gun owner and Democrat, both support measures to prevent gun violence.
Marina Small for NPR
Neighbors Richard Small (left), a Republican and longtime NRA member, and Gerardo Marquez, a gun owner and Democrat, both support measures to prevent gun violence.

Updated June 11, 2022 at 8:32 AM ET

About 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. owns a firearm. And many of them feel misunderstood by the millions of Americans who don't. Researchers say this disconnect makes it difficult to unify around shared support for gun control and gun violence prevention.

For instance, going back to 2018, polls show a majority of gun owners support raising the legal gun ownership age from 18 to 21. Most also support red flag laws, which would allow police to take guns from people deemed dangerous by courts. A poll conducted after the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, shows an overwhelming majority of Americans agree.

But many gun owners are hesitant to speak out publicly about their support for stronger gun control policies, in part because they feel out of step with gun control advocates whom they view as wanting to take away all guns. "They feel they're being blamed," explains Michael Siegel of Tufts University, who co-authored a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine based on a survey of about 2,000 gun owners.

The study found that about 70% of gun owners reported their reluctance to engage in gun violence prevention was, in part, due to feelings of alienation or being seen as part of the problem for owning a firearm. "They perceive gun control advocates as blaming them for the gun violence problem, not understanding gun ownership, and not understanding much about guns," the paper concludes.

Gun owners who support more limits on guns feel stuck in the middle. On the one hand, they feel misunderstood by stricter gun control advocates, but many are also out of step with the gun lobby, including the National Rifle Association, which pushes back against stricter controls.

"We have this image of gun owners, as, you know, walking around the streets carrying assault weapons and opposing gun laws," Siegel says, but this represents a small minority, even within the organized gun lobby.

Fewer than 20% of gun owners are members of the NRA, and Siegel's study found just 10% of gun owners say guns are an important part of their identity.

Common-sense measures

Long-time NRA member Richard Small lives on a ranch in Charlotte, Texas, where he says he and his grandson shoot at steel targets for fun. He says he was horrified and shaken by the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, which killed 19 students and two teachers. He supports the passage of what he calls common-sense measures, including more licensing requirements for gun owners, strengthening background checks and red flag laws. In the wake of the Uvalde tragedy, he has a proposition for fellow gun owners: "Come across and meet me halfway."

He'd like to see a movement. "I'm hoping that gun owners, sensible people, are going to rise up and say, 'You know what, enough is enough.'" Small says there's an urgency "to slow down the epidemic of massacres."

Small says he no longer identifies with what he says is propaganda put forward by the NRA and members of the group whom he views as having extreme positions. "They've almost become so defensive and paranoid that the government wants to seize their weapons," which he believes to be rhetoric intended to scare gun owners. "They're walking around with these ARs, you know, flamboyantly, downtown protesting," Small says. "This has gotten out of hand, you know, it's so crazy."

The loudest voices get the most attention, Small says. And in the wake of Uvalde, he has become more vocal about his support for stricter gun control. He made headlines when he handed over an assault-style rifle he owns to local police just after the school shooting, realizing he didn't want to own such a lethal weapon, and he didn't want it to end up in the wrong hands, which he says could happen if he sold it at a gun show.

He thought he'd be criticized by some in his community, since so many shoot and hunt for fun, but that hasn't happened. "I'm like, wow," Small says. When his wife posted on social media about his media appearances, the hundreds of responses were overwhelmingly positive. "It hasn't been the hate mail that I thought I was going to get," he says.

Small likes to have one-on-one conversations with fellow gun owners, and he's come to believe that perhaps people with moderate views, like him, could represent a silent majority.

"It's so obvious that we need to do something," says Small's neighbor and friend, Gerardo Marquez. They live on neighboring ranches, and both are retired school administrators. Marquez was a high school principal for many years and says he's sickened by the shootings carried out by 18-year-olds. "When are we going to wake up?" he asks.

Marquez collects guns and hunts doves and turkeys for fun, yet he's open to a buy-back program to offload an assault-style weapon he owns, and, like Small, he supports a range of measures to prevent gun violence.

Siegel says his research suggests a majority of gun owners share these views. "They support basic laws that aim to keep guns out of the hands of people who are high-risk for violence."

Part of the solution

Siegel says gun owners really need to be part of the solution. And to do that, he says Americans who don't own guns need to respect the fact that gun owners have a legitimate reason, and right, to own firearms. "We don't have to agree with it, but we have to respect it," Siegel says.

Showing gun owners that their point of view is respected, may help elevate — or draw out — the voices of those who support gun control, just like Small and Marquez. "I think that when gun owners are willing to come out and express their support for these laws, that's when things will really start to change," Siegel says.

A poll from Ipsos, conducted just after the Uvalde shooting, finds two-thirds of Americans believe there should be at least moderate regulations or restrictions on gun ownership. And though there's certainly a partisan difference, 53% of Republicans agree with moderate to strong regulations.

"We found that even among Republicans, we saw a majority, 78% said that they would be more likely to support a candidate who supports passing background checks and red flag laws for all new gun purchases," says Chris Jackson of Ipsos.

He says what this suggests is that "it's not really a political loser for Republicans to be like, I support people's right to own a firearm, but it should be limited, it should be responsible."

Researchers say if polls continue to show that most Americans, including many gun owners, support new control measures, it would be harder for politicians to say they're representing the interests of their people by voting against them.

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