Intersectionality in Action: Gun Ownership and Women’s Political Participation



We hypothesize that gun ownership among women is an important determinant of political engagement.


First, using 2013 Pew Research Center data, we examine different types of political participation concerning gun policy. Next, we examine data from a survey experiment embedded in a unique June 2017 national survey of nearly 900 gun owners. Finally, we analyze 2016 American National Election Studies data of behavioral and cognitive forms of political participation.


Gun‐owning women exhibit levels of political participation about gun policy and a greater willingness to engage in political discussions about gun control than nonowning women. We also find greater levels of political engagement among gun‐owning women on measures of participation not related to gun policy.


We discuss the implications of our findings for research on political participation as well as for gun policy.

Although gun ownership among men has been declining in recent decades, the same trend is not true among women. Since 1980, the percentage of women owning guns (about 11 percent) is stable, though still much lower than that of men (about 32 percent; see Goss, 2017; Parker et al., 2017; Yablon, 2016). The apparent resistance of women to the decline in ownership may be a result of several factors; most noteworthy the National Rifle Association and gun makers tailored marketing campaigns toward women, emphasizing protection, and featured programs designed to inculcate women into gun culture (Breslin, 2013; Enriquez, 2006; Goss, 2017; NRA Women, 2018; Schultz, 2017). Although Goss (20102017) contends that these efforts have not had the intended effect of increasing female gun ownership or participation in gun culture, it does appear that the efforts of the NRA and others may have prevented a decline in female gun ownership.

Trends in gun ownership are important because firearm possession is associated with specific political preferences. For example, Gimpel (1998) showed a strong vote preference for Republican gubernatorial candidates among gun owners. More recently, Joslyn et al. (2017) found gun ownership to be a stable and powerful predictor of voting for Republican presidential candidates across numerous election cycles from 1972 to 2012, and that this pattern increased over time. Additionally, gun owners, compared to nonowners, are also more likely to support concealed carry laws, oppose bans on guns, strongly champion the Second Amendment, less likely to blame guns for mass shootings, and less trustful of government (Joslyn and Haider‐Markel, 20132017; Lott, 2013; Parker et al., 2017).

In this article, we add to the literature by demonstrating that gun ownership influences women’s political engagement and participation. Three factors lead to higher participation levels among female gun owners. First, political mobilization. Due to their associations with gun‐related organizations and social networks, women gun owners are relatively accessible to political organizations intent on engaging citizens—especially pro‐gun organizations. Second, personal motivation. Women gun owners are likely to perceive a personal stake in electoral outcomes. The possibility of future, more restrictive regulations on gun owners may be sufficient motivation for political engagement. Third, gun possession can be empowering, encouraging women gun owners to participate more fully in political processes. While these same factors also apply to men gun owners, our major focus concerns the comparison of women gun owners to women nonowners. However, because men are more likely in general to participate politically (Verba, Burns, and Schlozman, 1997), the impact of gun ownership on participation should be considerably less among men than among women. We do not ignore gender differences and in fact underscore empirical evidence that speaks to this question.

We first outline a theoretical account that suggests that gun ownership enhances women’s political participation, especially on issues involving guns. We then test our hypothesis on three national surveys of American adults. Results show that across several distinct measures of political engagement and participation, there is a significant divide between gun‐ and nongun‐owning women. In the concluding section, we explore in some detail the implications of our results,

Women, Guns, and Political Engagement

The intersection between gender politics and political behavior is a flourishing field. Although differences between the political behavior of men and women initially occupied much scholarly attention, the gender gap in voter turnout largely disappeared and now tends to favor women. Yet women remain less engaged in other forms of political participation (Burns, Schlozman, and Verba, 2001). Studies show that men report greater interest in politics and are more likely to engage in political discussions (Burns, Schlozman, and Verba, 2001; Jennings and Niemi, 1981; Verba, Burns, and Schlozman, 1997; Verba, Nie, and Kim, 1987). Burns, Schlozman, and Verba (2001) found that women reported lower rates of contacting public officials, contributing financially to campaigns, and belonging to political organizations.

Alternatively, Hancock (2007) and Kittilson (2016) consider differences among women. Women are not conceived a monolithic group. Rather, researchers examine the intersection of gender with other identities and consider the attitudinal and behavior consequences. By comparing women to men, a rich variance among women, and among men, is unnecessarily neglected. For example, we know virtually nothing about a fascinating group of women that own guns. As noted, we know quite a bit about women’s behaviors and attitudes, and there is a growing literature on gun owners (e.g., Carlson, 2015; Joslyn et al., 2017; Joslyn, Forthcoming; Middlewood, 2019). But gun‐owning women constitute a unique social and political group that combines different identities that are cross‐cutting.

Women typically support gun control policies. Gun owners generally support gun rights policies. Further, women in general are less likely to participate in political affairs. But there is strong evidence that gun owners are more likely to engage politically than nongun owners (Joslyn, Forthcoming; Middlewood, 2019). Gun owners’ relationships with various gun organizations developed gun‐centric social networks, and gun‐related activities make them an accessible and relatively inexpensive group to mobilize. In other words, because of their social activities and gun‐related experiences, gun owners can be identified and contacted quickly by political groups. Related, pro‐gun interests maintain an extensive network of local, state, and national organizations that represent a favorable structure to mobilize gun owners (Cook and Goss, 2014; Lacombe, 2019). These suggest that women gun owners are more likely to participate politically than women nonowners.

In addition, the personal interests of gun owners are often implicated in political debates. Burns, Schlozman, and Verba (2001) and Hansen (1997) observed that women’s level of interest in politics increased when the subject matter was relevant to women’s position in the political system. For women gun owners, guns are a relevant subject matter and draw them into the political sphere. Women gun owners are also valued by gun rights groups and the firearm industry, and are emphasized in marketing campaigns and political mobilization efforts (Browder, 2006; Goss, 2017). Finally, surveys suggest women own guns primarily for safety and protection (Horowitz, 2017), and gun ownership helps women overcome feelings of vulnerability and victimization (Carlson, 2013; Goss, 2017; Horowitz, 2017; Pantazis, 2000; Middlewood, 2019). Conceivably the transformation that firearms produce should strengthen women’s motivation to engage in various forms of politics, especially gun‐related issues.

In summary, we expect women gun owners to report higher levels of political participation and involvement than nongun‐owning women. Firearms enhance personal confidence and empower women to engage in political discussion and political affairs generally. Women gun owners are relatively easily mobilized by a multitier pro‐gun organizational structure well developed for political purposes. Finally, repeated gun debates encourage women gun owners to quickly recognize their stake in the political process. Women gun owners are in fact a unique social and political minority and this makes them substantively and symbolically valuable for political mobilization, especially for gun rights advocates. Specifically, we hypothesize,

  • H1: Compared to women that do not own guns, women who own guns will exhibit higher levels of political participation/engagement.

Data and Methods

We test our hypothesis across three data sets. First, we utilized survey data from a May 1–5, 2013 Pew Research Center nationally representative probability sample of 1,504 American adults. This survey is particularly well suited for our purposes. Pew asked respondents several questions about their political activities regarding gun issues. The second data set was fielded during the summer of 2017 and included an embedded experiment that allows us to examine in detail the impact of gun ownership on the propensity of women to engage in political discussion. Finally, we employed data from the 2016 American National Election Studies (ANES) survey, which includes a convenient battery of political participation questions as well as a measure of gun ownership.

Study 1: 2013 Pew Center Data

Four questions from the Pew Center offer excellent tests of our hypothesis. Respondents were asked, “Have you ever (a, b, c, d in random order) or not? Yes or No. a. Contacted a public official to express your opinion on gun policy; b. contributed money to an organization that takes a position on gun policy; c. expressed your opinion on gun policy using Facebook, Twitter, or another social network; d. signed a petition about gun policy.” Yes responses were coded as 1, no = 0. For our analysis, we included independent variables that are well‐known determinants of political participation (Rosenstone and Hansen, 2003). Several resource‐based measures were included, notably education level, income, and age along with key demographic variables of race and gender. To this, we added a measure for partisan strength. Like others (Weisberg and Hasecke, 1999), we folded the standard party identification response at its midpoint, reordering the measure from 0 = pure Independents to 3 = strong Democrats and Republicans. Finally, gun ownership is measured by the question, “Do you, or does anyone in your household, own a gun, rifle or pistol; yes, respondent (20.7 percent); yes, someone else (12.9 percent); yes, both (8.2 percent); no, nobody in household owns a gun (51.8 percent); DK (6.4 percent).” We joined the first and third responses to identify respondents as gun owners (31 percent) and the second and fourth categories show that the respondent is not a gun owner (69 percent).

Table 1 presents the marginal effect coefficients across four measures of gun‐related participation. The estimates are derived from full multivariate models (for model details, see supplementary Appendix). The coefficients represent the change in probability as the gender variable moves from women to women gun owners and from men to men gun owners. For example, women gun owners were 0.20 more likely to sign a petition than women that do not own guns. And men gun owners were 0.13 more likely to contact public officials about gun policies. Two general results are noteworthy. First, across the four activities, gun ownership has a significant effect for women. Thus for matters related to gun policy, women gun owners reported greater activity and appear more willing than nongun‐owning women to participate politically. This evidence provides strong support for our hypothesis. Second, for men, gun ownership is only significant in half the activities—contacting a public official and contributing money. Furthermore, the effect of gun ownership is larger for women in three of the four forms of participation. It appears in this instance that gun ownership impacts the likelihood of women’s participation more so than men. As noted, results are robust after controlling for other notable determinants.

Table 1. Participation on Gun‐Related Measures by Gun Ownership and Gender

Gun‐Related Participation



Contact public official



Contribute money



Post on social media


0.04 n.s.

Sign a petition


0.03 n.s.

  • Entries are marginal effects, derived from full models (see supplementary Appendix). The estimates reflect the change in probability of engaging in a listed activity when the variable moves from a baseline of women or men to women gun owners and men gun owners
  • n.s., coefficient not significant
  • * = statistical significance.
  • Source: Pew Research Center’s May 2013 Political Survey.

Study 2: 2017 Survey Sample International Survey

To this point, our analysis shows association, but not causation. We are unable to account for all of the causal pathways that might influence the relationship between gun ownership and political engagement, but we did design an experiment that can account for causal influence in a specific decision to engage politically. We embedded an experiment in a nationally representative survey of 2,089 American adults administered by Survey Sample International (SSI) from June 28 to July 1, 2017 (see supplementary Technical Appendix). The experiment used a modified version of the classic “train test,” first applied by Elisabeth Noelle‐Neumann in her book The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion—Our Social Skin (1984). The train test examines the impact of the prevailing opinion climate on willingness to engage in political conversation. Respondents were asked to consider a hypothetical social situation where they are located next to a fellow passenger during a five‐hour train ride. The only information known about the passenger is that she possesses a political point of view diametrically opposed to the respondent. Would the respondent be willing to talk with this person to get to know her point of view better?

Noelle‐Neumann hypothesized that people possessing majority opinions would be more willing to stand up for their views and readily engage in a conversation with others of opposing views. Across several versions of the experiment, Noelle‐Neumann discovered those holding majority views were significantly more likely to talk about political issues with a fellow train passenger. If gun ownership genuinely enhances the likelihood of women engaging in politics, women gun owners should be more willing than nongun‐owning women to discuss politics with an unknown traveler holding an opposite political view. This gun gap should be especially evident when women gun owners perceive their opinions are in line with the majority. We modified Noelle‐Neumann’s train test in two ways. First, we selected gun ownership as the issue of discussion. Second, we changed the scenario to traveling on a plane. Respondents were first asked: “What do you think is more important—to protect the rights of Americans to own guns (58 percent) OR control gun ownership (42 percent).” Since 2009, the public is largely split on this question, showing either a slight majority or virtual tie among gun rights and gun control supporters (Pew Research Center, 2018). It was therefore important to ascertain respondents’ perceptions of public support for their own gun opinion. We then asked, “Now, regardless of your own opinion, what do you think: Do most Americans believe it more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns (62 percent) OR do most Americans believe it more important to control gun ownership” (38 percent). Clearly, most respondents in our sample perceived most Americans as protectors of the right to own guns.

Finally, if respondents answered the first question in support of protecting gun rights, the following question appeared: “Suppose you are faced with a five hour plane trip, and there is a person sitting next to you who thinks there should be greater control of gun ownership in the United States. Would you talk to this person to get to know their point of view better, or wouldn’t you think that worth your while?”

Results showed that gun rights supporters who believed that their opinion was supported by most Americans (61 percent) were as willing to talk to fellow plane travelers as gun rights supporters who perceived their opinion as the minority (57 percent) (χ2 = 2.1, p < 0.143). From this vantage point, the perceived climate of opinion did not influence willingness to engage others about an opposing view on guns. However, the distribution changes markedly when examining gender and gun possession.

Figure 1 displays women’s gun ownership status and perceived majority opinion. Women gun owners who perceived majority support for their own gun rights position appeared quite willing to talk to gun control supporters (64 percent). Compare this percentage to the slightly less than 50 percent of nongun‐owning women that also perceived majority support (49 percent). The figure shows that gun ownership enhances the willingness of women to speak to others of opposite views. Furthermore, the significant gun gap emerged only for women who perceived majority status of their own gun rights position. In the other condition, those who perceived their gun rights position supported by a minority of fellow citizens, gun and nongun owners did not differ. In fact, women gun owners do not exhibit any differences across conditions. In other words, among women who perceived minority status for their gun rights opinion, gun owners did not differ from nongun owners (χ2 = 0.62, p < 0.42). Rather, gun‐owning women appear willing to express their opinion regardless of perceived support for it. Nonowners appear more sensitive to perceptions of public support.

Figure 1

Open in figure viewerPowerPoint

Women Gun Rights Supporters, Perceived Public Support for Their Opinion, and Willingness to Engage People of Opposite Views

Note: Full models available in supplementary Appendix.

To the extent that women willing to speak exerts a greater impact on others, and perhaps influences the climate of opinion, gun possession appears to motivate that engagement. Men do not respond similarly. Gun ownership and perception of public opinion (majority or minority perceived status) did not influence willingness to speak to gun control supporters (see supplementary Appendix). Overall, the experiment provides conditional evidence that women gun owners are more willing to engage politically at the decision point of behavior action.

Study 3: American National Election Studies Survey 2016

Next, we examine two general dimensions of political participation in the 2016 ANES survey. The first is cognitive engagement, which is an important measure of political involvement and interest (Zukin, 2006). We employed two conventional measures of cognitive engagement; first, attention to national politics, and the second, concern about who may win the election. Specifically, respondents were asked, “How much attention do you pay to news about national politics on TV, radio, printed newspaper, or the Internet? 1—a great deal, 2—a lot, 3—a moderate amount, 4—a little, 5—none at all.” And, “How much do you care who wins the presidential election this fall? 1—a great deal, 2—a lot, 3—a moderate amount, 4—a little, 5—not at all.” We recoded responses to form separate dependent variables that begin with the least amount of attention and care—0, and extend to the highest amount—4. The second participation dimension is behavioral. Citizens engage in political activities that attempt to influence an outcome (Brady, 1999). We used four broad measures: whether citizens registered to vote, voted for a presidential candidate in 2016, voted for a congressional candidate in 2016, and voted for a presidential candidate in 2012.

As we did for our first study, we included typical determinants of political participation, notably education, income, age, race, gender, and party extremity as independent variables in our multivariate model. Given ANES extensive battery of questions, we also added an efficacy index comprising two conventional efficacy questions.1 Finally, gun ownership is measured by the question, “How many guns do you or anyone else living here own?” Approximately, 32 percent reported owning at least one gun. This percentage is comparable to levels observed in several national opinion polls (Ingraham, 2016; Parker et al., 2017; Smith and Son, 2015).

Table 2 reports ordered logistic model estimates for the cognitive political engagement measures. Positive coefficients indicate a greater likelihood of attending to political news and caring about the election outcome. Full models are displayed as well as estimated relationships for women and men separately. As anticipated, age, education, and party intensity are strong predictors of cognitive engagement. The estimated signs indicate that each variable increases the likelihood of greater cognitive engagement. Most importantly, female gun owners were more likely to attend to news about politics than were nongun‐owning women (b = 0.335, p < 0.008), and more likely to care about the outcome of the election than nongun‐owning women (b = 0.239, p < 0.05). By contrast, male gun owners did not differ in their cognitive engagement from nongun‐owning men. In short, gun possession does make a difference for cognitive engagement tendencies among women, but not men.

Table 2. Cognitive Political Participation by Gun Ownership






















Gun owner















































































Partisan strength




























Cut 1














Cut 2














Cut 3














Cut 4














Chi 2







No. of observations







  • Notes: Ordered logistic estimates. P‐values in parentheses. Data are from the 2016 ANES survey. Coefficients are estimated using ANES weights
  • ***p < 0.001
  • **p < 0.01
  • *p < 0.05
  • ˚p < 0.1.

Table 3 provides logistic estimates for behavioral participation. Once again, full model estimates are presented then data are stratified by gender. Predictably, participation variables of age, education, income, and party strength exert strong and consistent effects across the models. Beyond these effects, however, gun owners compared to nongun owners were more likely to register to vote (b = 0.386, p < 0.02), vote for congressional representatives (b = 0.249, p < 0.10), and report having voted in the 2012 presidential election (b = 0.347, p < 0.000). More important for our purposes, women gun owners were more likely to register (b = 0.611, p < 0.01), to vote in congressional elections (b = 0.406, p < 0.07), and to report having voted in 2012 (b = 0.346, p < 0.00) than women who did not own guns. Though the coefficient is positively signed as expected, estimates did not rise to standard statistical significance among female gun owners and voting for president in 2016 (b = 0.121, n.s.). Differences among male gun owners and nongun owners did not appear for any measures of behavioral participation except in 2012. As before, a significant gun gap appeared among women, and enhanced participation among women gun owners.

Table 3. Behavioral Political Participation by Gun Ownership


  •       Notes: Logistic estimates. P‐values in parentheses. Data are from the 2016 ANES survey. Coefficients are estimated using ANES weights
  •       ***p < 0.001
  •       **p < 0.01
  •       *p < 0.05
  •       ˚p < 0.1.

Discussion and Conclusion

Scholars are increasingly in pursuit of identifying differences among groups or categories of women, and it is clear that various identities and group memberships motivate women politically (Hancock, 2016). Our research examines a distinct crosscutting identity—gun ownership—to understand if gun ownership plays a significant role in the political participation of women. We theorize that given observed lower levels of political engagement and participation by women, gun ownership could facilitate higher levels of engagement and participation by allowing women to feel more confident and empowered in the public sphere. We also suggest that female gun owners will exhibit higher engagement and participation when the political issue involves guns.

Our analysis of data from three nationally representative surveys of American adults, one of which includes an experimental manipulation, provides support for our central hypothesis. In sum, female gun owners are significantly more likely to be engaged and participate in politics relative to female nongun owners. Specifically, our analysis of data from the 2016 ANES survey suggests that female gun owners are more likely to attend news about politics and more likely to care about the outcome of the election than nongun‐owning women. A similar gap does not consistently emerge among men.

The gun gap also appeared for behavioral measures of political engagement. Women gun owners were more likely to register to vote, vote in congressional elections, and report having voted in 2012 than women who do not own guns. Again, a similar gap does not consistently emerge among men, suggesting that gun ownership is particularly powerful in motivating the political engagement and participation of women, a reality previously unobserved in the literature.

Likewise, our analysis of Pew Center Research data indicated that women gun owners were more likely to contact officials to express opinions about gun policy, contribute money to organizations involved in gun issues, express opinions about gun issues on social media, and sign gun policy petitions, relative to female nongun owners. We observed a gap between male gun and nongun owners in only two of the four forms of political engagement. We conclude that female gun owners are distinctly motivated by the gun issue.

Finally, our results from an experiment embedded in a national survey suggested that women gun owners who perceived their gun rights position as supported by a majority of citizens were more willing to talk to gun control supporters, relative to women nonowners. The simulated social situation, involving a potentially awkward interaction between airplane travelers, suggested that women gun owners are emboldened to state a political position on a divisive issue with another passenger even though neither person can easily walk away from the situation. This finding is rather profound considering that research suggests that engaging in public discussion of political issues can affect the perceived opinion climate (Carpini, Cook, and Jacobs, 2004; Noelle‐Neumann, 1984).

Finally, our research contributes to two specific theoretical areas of interest. First, our results underscore the value of studying intersectionality, or potential differences among groups of women. Although gender gaps are often explored, much less attention is paid to distinctions within a gender. Women typically support gun control; gun owners typically support gun rights (Parker et al., 2017). Thus, women gun owners represent an intriguing group that combines divergent political tendencies. It is also a group that gun rights groups and businesses value, highlight, and emphasize in the marketing campaigns and political mobilization (Browder, 2006; Goss, 2017). Gun interests advertise protection, safety, strength, equality, and empowerment. It is these characteristics that in part produce the gaps in participation tendencies between gun‐ and nongun‐owning women. In addition, gun ownership represents a political identity (Joslyn et al., 2017; Lacombe, 2019). Such attachment draws the attention of competing political interests and thus members of groups tend to participate at higher levels than nonmembers. In this way gun possession and trends in gun ownership are important politically and require further research to map likely associations between guns and political behavior.

Additionally, because gun owners exhibit greater participation on gun issues than nonowners, and women owners are most likely to participate relative to women nonowners, policy debates may be disproportionally shaped by gun‐owning women, relative to other policy debates. Indeed, women gun owners can be mobilized, are likely to participate, and appear motivated by gun issues. Unfortunately for gun control advocates, women nonowners do not appear to be so easily mobilized or predisposed to engage politically, whether on gun‐related issues or not. Conceivably, these participation gaps could prove crucial in close elections and policy debates.

  • 1 V162215—“Public officials don’t care much what people like me think.” (Do you [agree strongly, agree somewhat, neither agree nor disagree, disagree somewhat, or disagree strongly/disagree strongly, disagree somewhat, neither agree nor disagree, agree somewhat, or agree strongly] with this statement?). V162216—“People like me don’t have any say about what the government does.” (Do you [agree strongly, agree somewhat, neither agree nor disagree, disagree somewhat, or disagree strongly/disagree strongly, disagree somewhat, neither agree nor disagree, agree somewhat, or agree strongly] with this state

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