For Gun Attitudes, Race Matters

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"What" Design by: Storm White/Youth Radio
Results of the GenForward survey question: “What do you think is more important: to protect the right of Americans to own guns, or to control ownership.” SOURCE: GenForward, BYP/UChicago with AP-NORC Center 7/2016. Infographic by: Storm White/Youth Radio

Millennials are the most diverse generation in American history, but most polls of young voters don’t include enough people of color to draw meaningful conclusions about their attitudes. This year, the University of Chicago’s Black Youth Project with the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research launched “GenForward,” a first-of-its-kind monthly survey of racially and ethnically diverse young adults. Youth Radio talked with Cathy Cohen, one of the authors of the survey, about one particular question that appeared on the July survey:

“What do you think is more important: to protect the right of Americans to own guns, or to control gun ownership?”

YOUTH RADIO: Where did this question come from and why was it important to ask?

CATHY COHEN: The question initially came from a survey we asked almost two years ago. We asked the initial questions, do you own a gun in your house? And young whites reported more gun ownership than young folks of color. There’s a narrative out there of young people of color being in inner cities and owning guns and shooting each other. [But] young whites actually own guns.

Part of it is there are young whites in rural areas who have a different relationship to guns and the way gun ownership is often represented when it’s associated with cities. So we thought, how do people relate to these guns? There’s an argument about second amendment rights that says the most important thing you can do is protect the right to gun ownership. There are others who believe the most important thing is to think about how do we control gun ownership? So we said, let’s pose a question where people have to take a position, and see what happens.


YR: And what did you find out?

We didn’t know exactly how the numbers would emerge. But young folks of color– meaning in our survey, African American, Asian American, Latino/a young adults– overwhelmingly, at least 50% agree that the most important thing is to control gun ownership. The only group where we see the numbers flipped a little bit was young whites, 53 percent [of whom] thought it was more important to protect the rights of gun owners.


YR:  What’s going with that? Like, why do majorities of young people of color say they value gun rights over gun control but the majority of young white people say the opposite?

I think about people’s experience with gun violence– we know that young folks of color, particularly African american or Latino are more likely to have experienced gun violence personally or to be in situations where there is gun violence. So it’s maybe not surprising the fact that they would support the idea of controlling gun ownership. When we think about young whites and their relationship to guns, which we rarely do, some of it is the safe environment of cities where maybe they’ve tightened gun ownership and gun violence but there’s also experiences with guns in rural areas where people are protective of the idea of owning guns and there’s a fear of politicians coming to take your guns away.


YR: What’s the takeaway from all of this– what are we really looking at here?

CC: It reminds us of never assuming the monolithic position of groups of people. Many would say millennials are just more tolerant. They are, I think, relative to other generations. But we’re always trying to pay attention to the differences that exist there and the way people’s lived experience can really shape their political perspective, even among young people. I think quite often we either ignore young people or we kind of lump them together. In this situation, what we’re seeing is young folks of color, who might have more exposure to gun violence, saying the most important thing here is we have to stop the gun violence. That’s not to say young whites don’t also feel that way. But there’s a substantial majority of white, unlike people of color, who don’t feel threatened by gun violence, who maybe have a different lived experience because of privilege or because of an urban-rural divide. They believe it’s more important to protect the right to gun ownership.

I don’t want to suggest that one is right and one is wrong. What I want to say is, how do we begin to dig deeper and understand why there are those differences? To me, instead of saying, “This is exactly what’s driving it”– we don’t really have the data to tell us exactly what’s driving it. It just reinforces the importance of these questions, and reminds us that these different groups of young people will sometimes look very different.


YR: Are there certain issues where you saw demographic trends or schisms in people’s attitudes?

CC: In the July survey, which asks about guns and gun ownership, there’s also a question that asks about the three most important problems that you think face the country. In that month, [young adults of color] ages 18-30 all listed racism as the most important issue, in part because of the heightened attention to police killing of black individuals. For non-Hispanic whites, the most important issue to them was terrorism and homeland security. So, again, one’s personal experience can and does shape what you think is the most important issue.

We also see these differences in our data evaluating the candidates. There is much greater support among African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos for Hillary Clinton, and it’s really only among young whites when you see a real split between Clinton and Trump. For almost every question we ask, there are significant differences shaped by race, ethnicity, gender and class.


YR: How should we be careful when trying to interpret this statistic on guns, and what are the questions we should be asking?

CC: We have to understand we’re looking the physical representation of groups in terms of their difference. This is the danger that we see with surveys or reporting by journalists when they’re looking at data. Because then they want to ascribe a reason for those differences. The truth is without further analysis we don’t know what’s driving those differences.

The most important thing we have to understand when we’re working with data is what it tells us, but also what it doesn’t tell us. Quite often what data will do is open the door of inquiry, pique our curiosity to make us do more analysis. Sometimes that comes from analyzing more data, or talking with folks and doing more qualitative research. But we always want to be careful not to believe the statistics are the reason we’re seeing the numbers we do. There’s really a second level of analysis that has to happen to help explain what we’re seeing.


YR: Going forward, do we expect it to be any different? How likely is it that gun legislation will be passed in the future?

CC: I don’t think the issue has to do with passing gun legislation, it has to do with the public. There are overwhelming numbers of the public that support a nationwide ban on semiautomatic weapons or more stringent criminal background checks. A lot of the problem with passing legislation has to do with congressional members and the influence of the NRA, less about the partisan division in the country. But is there general agreement among millennials on the importance of addressing gun violence? Our data suggests there is.

In this July survey, we asked questions about four different policies that are meant to address gun violence. Overwhelmingly, across racial groups, there was significant support for these policies. Young people agreed with a nationwide ban on automatic weapons, criminal background checks for all gun sales, more armed security guard in public places, different penalties for folks who are convicted of violating gun laws.

I don’t think the problem with passing this type legislation lies with the divisions among the population or among millennials, but rather partisan differences and politics as usual that happens in congress.


YR: I’d think those go together but I guess it’s more complicated than that.

CC: You’d think representatives would say, “My constituency wants this, so I should vote this way.” There are lots of constituencies they’re playing to. Of course they’re playing to people who vote, but if the people who vote are more concerned with another issue that takes priority, politicians are less likely to be punished for voting the way people want them to vote on gun violence.


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