TUCSON, Ariz. — Many gun owners and gun rights enthusiasts say that owning a gun makes them feel safer and sleep more soundly at night. But two studies conducted by researchers at the University of Arizona found that gun owners aren’t any happier overall than non-gun owners, and don’t sleep any better for that matter.
Terrence Hill, the lead researcher for both studies, says that the results surprised him, since they appear to run counter to the claims of gun owners that their firearms make them feel safe, secure, and protected, feelings usually associated with happiness. Hill says the findings help him understand the relationship between personal well-being and gun ownership, which hasn’t been studied enough.
“We want to understand gun owners’ subjective experiences,” says Hill, an associate professor of sociology in UA’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, in a university release. “We’re trying to understand when guns promote individual well-being, if at all, and that will add to the discussion of the role of guns in our society.”
Hill clarifies that many individuals might experience greater happiness indicators and/or better sleep because they own a gun, but according to his results, that’s not true for the population of American gun owners overall.
The Happiness Study
Hill’s happiness research was based on the results of a 27-year study, the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Study, which collected data from 1973 to 2018.
At first, the data appeared to show a positive relationship between gun ownership and happiness, but when researchers included the respondents’ marital status in their analysis, that positive relationship dissipates. Gun owners were more likely to be married than their unarmed counterparts, and marriage, not owning a gun positively affected happiness.
After the analysts factored in marital status and other variables, such as race, education level, and religion, they found gun owners and non-gun owners showed similar happiness levels.
One subset of gun owners appeared to be happier than non-gun owners, however. People who own guns but identify as Democrats were happier on average than those who identified as Republicans or Independents. Hill says this is because liberals and conservatives tend to own guns for different reasons.
“Some people use guns to enhance a recreational lifestyle – for activities like target shooting – and this might promote happiness because it enhances a lifestyle,” explains Hill. “Gun owners who identify as more liberal or democratic may be more likely to use guns for that reason as opposed to emphasizing self-defense. There is previous research that shows Democrats are less likely than Republicans to own a gun for protection.”
The Sleep Study
Hill’s sleep study analysis was based on four years’ worth of data collected over a portion of the General Social Society Survey between 2010 and 2018. The data revealed no difference in the level of sleep disturbance of gun owners and non-gun owners.
Hill’s research team examined the feelings of participants concerning the safety of their neighborhoods. The researchers compared sleep disturbance of gun owners and non-gun owners who lived in dangerous neighborhoods and found no difference.
“We found that gun ownership was no consolation for living in a dangerous neighborhood in terms of the sleep disturbance outcome,” Hill said.
According to Hill, the notion that guns help people sleep better at night has been championed by special interest groups like the National Rifle Association, and as advertising points by commercial gun producers and for accessories like bedside gun holsters or pillows with gun compartments.
“Whenever people start to promote a certain type of lifestyle – like a type of exercise or a diet – public health is there to test it,” Hill said. “We think if anybody makes a claim about how guns are good for people’s health and wellbeing, those claims should be formally tested with empirical data. We need to test those claims like we would test any dietary or exercise recommendation.”
Hill hopes his research into gun ownership and overall personal wellbeing will add to the public conversation about the role of firearms in society.