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Survey shows most US gun owners support political violence

Gun-wielding members of the American extremist far-right Boogaloo Boys group gather in Richmond, Virginia, to participate in a gun rights advocates' rally on January 18, 2021. (File photo by Getty Images)

A recent poll has revealed most US firearm owners support political violence as a means to ends.

The poll conducted by researchers at the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program (VPRP) showed the openness of certain types of gun owners to the idea, and possibly the practice of violence as a political tool.

The mega-study, titled Firearm Ownership and Support for Political Violence in the United States, with more than 12,000 participants drawn from across the country and weighted for demographics, showed large numbers of Americans who have bought guns over the past four years or who regularly carry their loaded weapons in public are willing to engage in political violence, even to the extent of shooting a perceived opponent.

The study’s findings revealed Americans who have bought their weapons since the disruptions caused by COVID pandemic in 2020 and those who often or always carry guns in public expressed high levels of susceptibility to political violence. A similar, though less marked, trend was visible among owners of assault-style rifles of the sort used frequently in mass shootings.

Gun purchases have soared in the US since the start of the pandemic and mass shootings incidents across the country are running at an all-time high.

The researchers say a gun-flooded nation facing a full-fledged political clash poses a deadly combination as both sides of the political spectrum are portraying the upcoming 2024 US presidential race as an existential fight for the very future of the United States.

The authors of the study say the survey findings have sounded the alarm for US official as the country nears the election amid an exceptionally tense time in US history with only seven months left to go to what is expected to be a fiery rematch between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

Their finding from the survey should give federal and state officials serious considerations. It is plausible, they say, that recent gun purchasers may be “arming up for anticipated civil conflict. Our findings strongly suggest that large numbers of armed individuals who are at least potentially willing to engage in political violence are in public places across the US every day.”

The respondents to the UC Davis survey were asked whether they believed that violence was justified in the pursuit of a range of specific political objectives. About 39 percent of gun owners said yes, compared with 30 percent of non-owners.

That differential is moderate. But the gap becomes far more serious when the same question is put to subsets of gun owners. Forty-two percent of owners of assault-type rifles said political violence could be justified, rising to 44 percent of recent gun purchasers, and a staggering 56 percent of those who always or nearly always carry loaded guns publicly.

The researchers found that the extent to which some subgroups said they were prepared to go into actually carrying out political violence was even more stunning.

Interviewees were asked to imagine they were in a situation in which political violence was perceived as justified. In this hypothetical scenario, 16.5 percent of gun owners who publicly carried loaded firearms in the 12 months before the survey was conducted said they would go as far as to shoot someone. This percentage was also high among those who had purchased their guns since 2020 (8.9 percent) and owners of assault-style rifles (7.9 percent), compared to those who did not own guns at all (3.3 percent).

The authors of the study said, “Recent purchasers and always- or nearly-always-carriers were more willing to kill to advance political objectives.”

They found the mindset of the gun-owning subgroups to be fixed on extreme political views lending themselves to political violence. Asked whether they believed that the US would erupt in civil war within the next few years, 29 percent of public gun carriers said "yes", with the same answer given by 22 percent of recent purchasers and 20 percent of assault-type rifle owners.

The study, published by Jama Network Open on Tuesday, was based on a survey carried out in May and June 2022. It is part of a series of peer-reviewed articles and papers from the violence prevention research program that has explored views on political violence in the US including by party affiliation and political ideology and among Republicans who support Trump’s Make America Great Again (Maga) movement.

The research team, led by Garen Wintemute, a professor of emergency medicine at UC Davis, approaches political violence as a public health problem. They hope their findings will act as a guide to preventive measures as federal and state officials brace themselves for what lies ahead.

The researchers, however, say they were comforted by the finding that the majority of Americans were opposed to political violence as an acceptable means.

They said this idea should give hope, as it suggests that violence prevention measures could be effective among gun owners and non-owners alike who “publicly repudiate political violence” and could “help identify, dissuade, deter, and incapacitate likely perpetrators.”

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