This article is based on data from two residential surveys recently conducted by the Justice Center. The first is the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Community Survey (MSCS), which has been carried out annually since 2006. It is a mail and web-based survey of randomly-selected adult heads-of-household. Data from the 1,411 respondents to the 2009 survey are used in this analysis. The second data source is the Anchorage Community Survey (ACS) which has been conducted biannually since 2003. The ACS was conducted most recently over the winter of 2009–2010 and had 2,080 respondents. Like the MSCS, the sample is randomly-selected adult heads-of-household, and the methodology is a mixed-mode, mail and web design.
Both surveys included a question set in which respondents were asked to choose those things that they themselves do from among a list of things “people may do for self-protection or to feel more secure in their homes and neighborhoods.” The list included “Keep a firearm.”
It is important to note that the question does not differentiate among types of firearms, e.g., handguns such as revolvers or pistols versus long guns such as rifles or shotguns. The question also did not ask about gun ownership overall; it is possible some respondents who own firearms primarily for sporting reasons and not for self-protection or security would not have selected “keep a firearm” from the list. Also, the number of respondents selecting “keep a firearm” may be fewer than the actual number of gun owners, because some people may have had reservations about reporting their gun ownership to the researchers (as the researchers were clearly affiliated with the Borough government in the case of the MSCS).
Firearm ownership was reported at 71.4 percent in the Mat-Su Borough and 52.6 percent in Anchorage. This difference may not be due to the rural/urban contrast between the two communities. In the Mat-Su Borough, reported gun ownership is higher in the more urbanized areas of Wasilla and Palmer (72.2%) compared to other parts of the Borough (65.9%).
To compare, the nationwide 2006 General Social Survey (GSS) asked respondents “Do you happen to have in your home any guns or revolvers?” In the U.S., just over a third (34.5%) answered “yes” to the question. The GSS does not report data by individual state, but divides the country into nine regions. Alaska is in the Pacific region; 27.9 percent of respondents in these states (Washington, Oregon, California, and Hawaii, in addition to Alaska) reported having guns or revolvers in their homes. Inclusion with other more populous states diffuses the contribution of what are relatively high ownership rates in Alaska. In 2001, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) surveyed 2,716 Alaskans; 57.8 percent reported having firearms in or around their homes.
This article provides a descriptive report of correlates related to gun ownership, in particular, gender, age, marital status and household composition, socio-economic status (household income, home ownership, and value of home), and race and ethnicity. Despite the significant difference in the incidence of gun ownership in the Mat-Su Borough versus Anchorage, the patterns with respect to correlates are remarkably similar. Tables 1, 2, and 3 show the percentage of reported gun ownership in various sub-sets of the sample.
In both samples, women were considerably less likely than men to report keeping a firearm. In Anchorage, fewer than half (45.1%) of women said they had a firearm in the home, compared to 62.0 percent of men. In the Mat-Su Borough, 64.9 percent of female respondents reported having a firearm, while men in the Mat-Su Borough had the highest rate of gun ownership in both areas at 81.1 percent. Because of higher rates of gun ownwership in the Mat-Su Borough overall, women in the Mat-Su Borough reported higher rates of gun ownership than women or men in Anchorage.
In both the Mat-Su Borough and Anchorage, gun ownership was at its lowest levels in those 65 or over (62.3% and 46.2%, respectively), and those under 25 years old (64.4% in the Mat-Su and 44.5% in Anchorage). Peak ownership in the Mat-Su Borough was by those aged 35–44 (76.7%), while in Anchorage it was by those aged 55–64 (56.7%).
Marital Status and Household Composition
In both samples, gun ownership was highest among married respondents (74.5% in the Mat-Su Borough and 57.0% in Anchorage). Among single, never married people, gun ownership was reported as 64.4 percent in the Mat-Su Borough and 42.0 percent in Anchorage. Like singles, divorced people were less likely to own firearms compared to married people (63.9% in the Mat-Su Borough and 45.0% in Anchorage). Widowed people and separated people comprised a small number of respondents. Both these groups had the lowest levels of gun ownership in the samples. In the Mat-Su Borough, 61.5 percent of widowed people said they owned guns for self-protection, as did 40 percent of separated people. In Anchorage, gun ownership was reported as 34.9 percent for widowed people and 40.7 percent for separated people.
Respondents were asked “Including yourself, how many people currently live in your home?” and “How many children under the age of 18 currently live in your home?” These two variables were used to create new household composition variables to examine whether gun ownership differs in households where there are children versus households without children, or if single people living alone report different rates of gun ownership compared to married people.
Single adults, as a group, have lower rates of gun ownership compared to households with two or more adults. Within the group of single adults, those with children in the house (i.e., single parents) were less likely to report owning a firearm. This was true in Anchorage and the Mat-Su Borough.
As noted above, married people had among the highest rates of gun ownership. Within married households in Anchorage, the rate of gun ownership is lower when there are children under 18 years old in the house than when there are no children (55.8% versus 57.9%), but in the Mat-Su Borough, the opposite is the case, where 75.2 percent of married couples with children under 18 said they own guns, compared to 74.0 percent of married couples without children in the house. The differences in gun ownership among married people in homes with and without children are not statistically significant (see Table 1).
People who live alone comprise 12.8 percent of respondents in Anchorage and 11.9 percent of Mat-Su Borough respondents. While both these groups have comparatively low gun ownership rates, there are interesting differences between women who live alone and men who live alone. In Anchorage, for example, 26.7 percent of women who live alone said they own a gun, compared to 61.4 percent of men who live alone. Sixty-two percent of men who live with others said they own a gun, while 47.7 percent of women who live with others said they owned guns. For men, whether they live alone has little effect on gun ownership. Among women, those who live with others are almost twice as likely as those who live alone to report owning a firearm.
The differences in rates of gun ownership between women who live alone and those who live with others are not a function of homeownership, as the percentage of women who own homes is 83 percent for those who live alone and 83.9 percent for those who live with others. As discussed later in this article, the variable most strongly associated with levels of gun ownership is household income. Household income for women who live alone is much lower (44.4% report incomes under $50,000) than it is for women who live with others (21.0% report household incomes under $50,000).
Gun ownership increases in linear fashion, with the lowest income respondents (less than $20,000) having the lowest rate (44.3% in the Mat-Su Borough and 30.1% in Anchorage). Those with household incomes of $100,000 or more report gun ownership rates of 84.6 percent in the Mat-Su Borough and 60.4 percent in Anchorage. In both communities, the relationship between household income and gun ownership was moderately strong and highly significant (p<.001).
Owning a home is strongly associated with owning a gun. In the Mat-Su Borough, 73.2 percent of homeowners said they own a gun versus 55.5 percent of renters, while in Anchorage, 55.3 percent of homeowners reported gun ownership versus 39.3 percent of renters. When controlling for income however, the relationship is not so apparent. Comparing renters and owners of similar incomes reveals few differences in gun ownership. The significance of homeownership is easily explained by the fact that lower-income people are less likely to be homeowners, and are also less likely to own firearms.
Value of Home
In the Mat-Su Borough, the more expensive a respondent’s house was, the higher the level of reported gun ownership. This relationship is strong and linear. This pattern was also generally true in Anchorage, with the exception of those who reported a market value for their home of less than $75,000. The gun ownership rate for these individuals was 49.9 percent, nearly as high as the 53.8 percent and 58.2 percent reported by respondents whose home value was $200,000 to $299,999 or $300,000 or more, respectively.
The way home value was measured was not the same in the two surveys. In the Mat-Su Community Survey, the question was close-ended, that is, respondents had to choose from a list of options of home values. In the Anchorage Community Survey, the question was open-ended. More significantly, for the sake of comparability, the Anchorage Community Survey data were collapsed to the same scale used in the Mat-Su Community Survey (see Table 2). Because of the higher market value of residential properties in Anchorage relative to the Mat-Su Borough (the average sales price of a single-family home in Anchorage in the third quarter of 2008 was $319,683 versus $235,972 in the Mat-Su Borough according to data from the quarterly Survey of Lenders, Third Quarter 2008, Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Research and Analysis Section) using this scale places over 50 percent of Anchorage respondents in the $300,000 or more category, and fewer than four percent have reported residential market values of under $125,000. In the Mat-Su Borough, eight percent of respondents said their house was worth less than $125,000, while only 22 percent thought it was worth $300,000 or more.
If the Anchorage data are collapsed in a manner more appropriate to the demographics of that survey, the relationship of household market value to gun ownership begins to more closely resemble that observed in the Mat-Su Community Survey.
In both Anchorage and the Mat-Su Borough, there was a non-linear relationship between levels of formal education levels and gun ownership (see Table 2). The highest rates of gun ownership are among those with more than a high school education but less than a four-year college degree. People who had less than a high school degree had the lowest rates of gun ownership; this may be a function of income more than education. Indeed, the relationship between education level and gun ownership is not significant when controlling for income. In other words, the higher the income level reported by respondents, the more likely they were to say they own a gun. Education, while positively correlated with income (as education increases, so does income), was less a predictor of gun ownership than income was.
Race and Ethnicity
Both surveys asked respondents to indicate if they were of Hispanic or Latino background or heritage. The percentage of people who said they were Hispanic or Latino was quite small in both areas: 5.7 percent in Anchorage and 5.3 percent in the Mat-Su Borough. There was no significant difference in gun ownership among Hispanics and non-Hispanics in Anchorage or the Mat-Su Borough.
In the Mat-Su Borough, when whites are compared to all other racial groups combined, the rate of gun ownership by minorities is significantly higher than it is for whites (79.5% versus 70.7%; p<.05). However, there are differences among the minority groups. For racial groups, Alaska Natives and American Indians were least likely to report owning a gun (66.7%, but there were only 48 respondents), the seven black respondents reported a 71.4 percent gun ownership rate, 85.7 percent of Asians said they owned a gun (14 respondents), and all of the four Pacific Islanders reported gun ownership. The number of minority respondents is low, so these results should be taken with some caution.
In Anchorage, minorities were less likely than whites to report owning a gun (49.1% versus 53.6%). This is not a statistically significant difference. Among the various racial groups, of the 56 black people who answered the survey, over half said they own a gun, and 46.0 percent of the 100 Alaska Natives and American Indians in the survey reported gun ownership. Gun ownership rates were 42.9 percent for the 21 Pacific Islanders who responded and 42.0 percent for the 88 Asian respondents.
Reported rates of gun ownership are higher in the Mat-Su Borough than in Anchorage, although the correlates of gun ownership are similar in both communities. Men are more likely to own guns than are women, homeowners are more likely to own guns than are renters, and married people are more likely to own guns than are single people. People in the oldest and youngest age groups, relative to the middle-aged, are less likely to report owning a firearm. Two related variables, value of home and household income, were positively associated with gun ownership. As incomes and home values increase, so does the reported rate of gun ownership.
More detailed analyses of the data from both the ACS and MSCS, currently underway, explore the issue of gun ownership in relation to fear of crime and other self-protective measures.
For more information on the Community Indicators Project and residential surveys conducted by the Justice Center, see http://justice.uaa.alaska.edu/indicators/index.html
Sharon Chamard is an associate professor with the Justice Center.