Gun Owners are Happier People

From the Wall Street Journal:


Trigger Happy


April 19, 2008; Page A10

In words that he has come to regret, Barack Obama opined as to why he was
having a hard time winning over many blue-collar voters: "They get bitter,
they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them
or anti-immigrant sentiment or antitrade sentiment as a way to explain their

It was a throwaway line to a private audience at a San Francisco
fund-raiser. And it was made public on a liberal Internet blog, not by
right-wing commentators. But Mr. Obama's opponents seized on the quote. It
was evidence, they claimed, that he is "elitist," caricaturing middle
Americans as gun-toting, immigrant-despising, religious rednecks – who are
also deeply unhappy people. And as a contrite Mr. Obama admitted, "I am the
first to admit that some of the words I chose, I chose badly."

The comment may or may not be an indication of Mr. Obama's real views about
those ordinary Americans who've not enjoyed the full fruits of economic
growth over the past decades. Yet his casual portrayal no doubt had heads
nodding vigorously in assent among his supporters, and probably among many

That anybody would find this portrayal realistic illustrates how little some
Americans know about their neighbors. And nothing reveals the truth better
than the data on guns.

According to the 2006 General Social Survey, which has tracked gun ownership
since 1973, 34% of American homes have guns in them. This statistic is sure
to surprise many people in cities like San Francisco – as it did me when I
first encountered it. (Growing up in Seattle, I knew nobody who owned a

Who are all these gun owners? Are they the uneducated poor, left behind? It
turns out they have the same level of formal education as nongun owners, on
average. Furthermore, they earn 32% more per year than nonowners. Americans
with guns are neither a small nor downtrodden group.

Nor are they "bitter." In 2006, 36% of gun owners said they were "very
happy," while 9% were "not too happy." Meanwhile, only 30% of people without
guns were very happy, and 16% were not too happy.

In 1996, gun owners spent about 15% less of their time than nonowners
feeling "outraged at something somebody had done." It's easy enough in
certain precincts to caricature armed Americans as an angry and miserable
fringe group. But it just isn't true. The data say that the people in the
approximately 40 million American households with guns are generally happier
than those people in households that don't have guns.

The gun-owning happiness gap exists on both sides of the political aisle.
Gun-owning Republicans are more likely than nonowning Republicans to be very
happy (46% to 37%). Democrats with guns are slightly likelier than Democrats
without guns to be very happy as well (32% to 29%). Similarly, holding
income constant, one still finds that gun owners are happiest.

Why are gun owners so happy? One plausible reason is a sense of
self-reliance, in terms of self-defense or even in terms of the ability to
hunt their own dinner.

Many studies over the years have shown that a belief in one's control over
the environment dramatically adds to happiness. Example: a famous study of
elderly nursing home patients in the 1970s. It showed dramatic improvements
in life satisfaction from elements of control as seemingly insignificant as
being able to care for one's plants.

A bit of evidence that self-reliance is at work among gun owners comes from
the General Social Survey. It asked whether one agrees with the statement,
"Those in need have to take care of themselves." In 2004, gun owners were 10
percentage points more likely than nonowners to agree (60% to 50%).

That response is not evidence that gun owners only care about themselves,
however. In 2002, they were more likely to give money to charity than people
without guns (83% to 75%). This charity gap doesn't reflect their somewhat
higher incomes. Gun owners were also more likely to give in other ways, such
as donating blood. Are gun owners unsentimental? In 2004, they were more
likely than those without guns to strongly agree that they would "endure all
things" for the one they loved (45% to 37%).

None of this is to dictate what gun policy should be in our nation and its
communities, let alone whether gun owners deserve to be happier than those
of us without firearms. Guns are an important area of debate about freedom
and security, not to mention constitutionality. What we do know, however, is
that contrary to the implication of Mr. Obama's comments, for many
Americans, happiness often does indeed involve a warm gun.

Mr. Brooks, a professor at Syracuse University's Maxwell School and a
visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of the
just-published "Gross National Happiness" (Basic Books).

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