We asked, you answered.
When last week’s shooting in Newtown sparked a national debate over gun control, we wanted our readers to weigh in. Why do you own a gun? Why don’t you? We got almost 1,300 responses in three days—769 from gun owners and 524 from non-gun owners.
Readers from all 50 states wrote in. However, we didn’t hear from any gun owners in Rhode Island, nor did we receive anything from non-gun owners in Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, or Wyoming.
Now, this isn’t a comprehensive study by any means, but it does provide a lot of food for thought. To help sort through the data, we ran the 1,300 responses through Overview, a clustering algorithm maintained by the Associated Press and supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, designed to flag key words and phrases that showed up most frequently. For example, over 30 responses included some variant of the word “need”—mostly from non-gun owners like JR from Indiana, who wrote, “I don’t need one. Simple.”
On the other side, gun owners clearly argued for the practicality of gun ownership—the word “hunt” came up often:
I live on a farm and raise livestock. I use it on predators. Two months ago a rabid skunk attacked my animals, and we needed to kill it. The gun is kept in a gun safe.
—Priscilla from New Hampshire
I'm a hunter (for food) and I need to protect my livestock.
—Anonymous from Virginia
I hunt. But that is it, I own a shotgun and two rifles, and both are kept locked up until hunting season. I live alone and do not have children that can access them. I plan on buying a handgun because I moved to a rough part of town, and it will only be kept inside. It will not be on my person.
—Zach from Missouri
I live 45 minutes away from police response and I hunt.
—Anonymous from Oregon
The algorithm also spotted many references to how readers “grew up,” illustrating the cultural factors at play:
I grew up on a farm with guns as just another tool, and shot my share of sick skunks, racoons, put down injured livestock humanely, and hunted rabbits, birds and deer. Still live on a working farm, still own a 22 and 12 guage, but count on the big yella dog to defend us!
—Steven from Iowa
I grew up in a remote area of the American West. Guns were simply a part of everyone's life there, partly for protection (there wasn't a policeman within many miles), partly for hunting but also as family heirlooms. The guns I still have are mostly those passed down from previous generations.
—William from Utah
I grew up shooting with my family and it's something I like to do. It's something i've always been interested in.. the history and mechanics of them, target practice and collecting guns. Also I feel safer knowing I can protect my family or innocent strangers, if it comes down to it.
—B from Massachusetts
Even in this group of gun owners, though, many of them still support restrictions:
I enjoy shooting. Mine are kept locked and disassembled. Ammunition is kept separately. I grew up with firearms but support much tighter controls on firearms.
—Anonymous from Colorado
I grew up around guns. But I don't feel it's a God-given right to be armed. I don't think the 2nd amendment includes assault rifles with 30 round magazines.
—Anonymous North Carolina
I hunt deer, squirrels, and ducks. I enjoy target shooting. I grew up around guns. I would not hesitate to protect my family. With all that said, I believe there is a need to improve background checks, ban high capacity magazines, and limit/deny access to certain firearms.
—Christian from Georgia
grew up in the south, hunted and always considered it a right. While I still defend the right to a handgun for protection or a SENSIBLE long gun for hunting. Assault weapons are for killing more people. Anyone hearing rumors of invasion from Canada or Mexico?
—Anonymous from Louisiana
We had a number of former members of the military write in, and they came in on both sides of the debate:
I don't kill things unless I am deployed and a gun is issued to me by the military.
—Frank from Georgia
both my husband and I both served in the US Army. While in the military, we used our personal "weapons" (and yes military jargon DOES work well here...guns are weapons and the term weapon engenders the respect a user must have for this equipment) for private target shooting and keep our skills sharp
As an army officer I came to realize many guns are tools created with a main purpose of killing. I don't hunt and I don't target shoot. No need for a gun.
Some of the most striking response came from people who had prior experience with violence:
my late husband suicided with a gun. I will never have a gun in my home again.
—Carol from Texas
my dad committed suicide by gun so I hate them.
—Anonymous from Iowa
They are tools of violence. A killing machine can never do more good than evil. Most guns fired in the home are not for self defense, but for murder or suicide. My mother has been at gunpoint and could have lost her life, and I have been at a party where shots were fired. I have never felt more fear
—Anonymous from Arizona
I grew up during a colonial war, lived through urban warfare, and saw my father escape almost certain death because he did NOT have a gun. I have nothing against responsible gun owners, but guns truly terrify me.
—Nadie from Wisconsin
Some people’s pasts led them to own guns:
I did not have one and was mugger, now I carry one!
—Anonymous from Illinois
I have been attacked, scared and want to be sure that if someone comes in my home I can protect my family and myself.
—Heather from Texas
besides my second amendment.. I work in an ER and twice have had altercations with sick patientsboutside where i feared the end result could be violent.
The Second Amendment registered on both sides of the debate:
I own guns and have taught my entire family to respect them and know how to shoot responsibly. The Founding Fathers placed the 2nd Amendment there so we can protect ourselves from a government that exceeds the powers We The People give it. If police and military can have guns, so can I.
—Chip from South Carolina
you are more likely to die by a gun with a gun in your home. Statistically- it does not protect your family than put them at risk. PLUS- it was NOT what the founders intended for the 2nd Amendment. As Justice Burger (a conservative) called the misinterpretation of the 2nd amendment- a FRAUD.
—Anonymous from California
We counted many references to fear, regret, and depression in readers’ answers:
I have both a volatile temper and a streak of depression. Gun ownership doesn't mix with those traits.
—Anonymous from Alabama
i've been suicidal and i don't trust myself around weapons
—Anonymous from Colorado
I suffer from clinical depression and know I would be safer without one.
I struggle with clinical depression. I cannot guarantee that I won't use the gun on myself.
—Anonymous from Massachusetts
We all live with regret and I don't want shooting someone in a moment of rage to be one of mine.
—@WHOSKIDDINGWHO from New York
In April 2008, President Obama said that there are people in this country who “cling to guns or religion” as a way to “explain their frustrations” with society. We didn’t find any gun owners discussing religion, but we did find a number of non-gun owners citing their religion as a reason for not owning a gun
I love & respect God & all sentient beings
—Anonymous from New Mexico
of Matthew 28:19-20. I'd be a pretty terrible witness for Christ's love if I was always broadcasting that I am perfecting willing to kill someone.
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.
—Christina from California
"Thou shalt not kill."
—Karen from Idaho
Many non-gun owners saw guns plainly as a tool for killing—that word came up frequently:
Guns, particularly handguns and assault weapons are made to kill people. you should't own such a gun unless you are ready to kill someone. i am not
—Sheila from North Carolina
GUNS kill!!! I have no need or want to kill. I can incapacitate in a number of ways such as tasers, pepper spray etc
—BA from Colorado
Guns were made to kill, and this world doesn't need anymore killing.
—Anonymous from Washington
Guns sole purpose is to kill
—EM from New York
Gladly, the conversation was largely civil. But a few spoilsports, ostensibly non-gun owners posting as gun owners, kept turning up one euphemism for manliness:
I'm mentally unstable and feel comforted by a false sense of security., and I have a small penis.
—Damon from North Carolina
i have a gun fetish. it makes up for my small penis size.
—Jeff from New York
my penis is so small.
—Louie from Texas
i have a small penis
—mattwyatt New Hampshire
I carry because I have a small penis and prefer to be fearful than brave.
—Anonymous from Georgia
I have a small penis and need to compensate
—Red Neck from Alabama
I'm scared :)
I have a smaller-than-average penis and intellect, and I'm scared of people with dark skin. Owning a gun makes me feel better about both of these things.
—Stan from North Carolina