By ARTHUR C. BROOKS
April 19, 2008
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 frustrations."
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 ******** – 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 others.
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 gun.)
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).