The Best of Our Gun Debate: Readers Weigh In on Owning Firearms

In the wake of Newtown, we asked readers to tell us why they own guns—and why they don’t. Then our fancy algorithm showed us the top responses. Check out the interactive data.

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.

(But it’s not too late to pipe in. Click here to see the raw responses, and to add your own.)

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:

The algorithm also spotted many references to how readers “grew up,” illustrating the cultural factors at play:

Even in this group of gun owners, though, many of them still support restrictions:

We had a number of former members of the military write in, and they came in on both sides of the debate:

Some of the most striking response came from people who had prior experience with violence:

Some people’s pasts led them to own guns:

The Second Amendment registered on both sides of the debate:

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We counted many references to fear, regret, and depression in readers’ answers:

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

Many non-gun owners saw guns plainly as a tool for killing—that word came up frequently:

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: