What a giant 2020 polling effort tells us about regional differences in gun ownership, attitudes to gun control, and the geography of violence

The massive Nationscape polls show correlations between gun deaths, gun ownership rates, and attitudes toward various gun control measures

By Colin Woodard

Credit: Colin Woodard / Nationhood Lab

Today at Nationhood Lab we have some additional insights to share about how U.S. regionalism, gun violence, and public attitudes toward guns come together.

From July 2019 to January 2021, the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape Project engaged in one of the most ambitious and detailed polls of the U.S. electorate ever undertaken. Each week over that year and a half period leading up to the 2020 election and the January 6th coup attempt, Nationscape surveyed approximately 6000 Americans about a vast range of policy questions, political attitudes and other preferences, yielding over a half million interviews overall, with over 1000 in every congressional district.

The data can be sorted at a county-level, which allows Nationhood Lab to sort results based on the historically-based regional cultures identified in my 2011 book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. It’s a treasure trove of insights we’ll be sharing here from time to time. (If you’re not familiar with the American Nations model, here’s a quick synopsis.)

One of the first issues we wanted to look at was guns. In late April we posted an analysis of the regional geography of deadly U.S. gun violence, along with a companion article at POLITICO that went “viral,” as they say, with over a million reads in the first three days, making it the most read article at that news site so far this year. That report showed two- and three-fold differences in per capita gun homicides and suicides between “red” regional cultures like the Deep South and Greater Appalachia and “blue” ones like Yankeedom and the Left Coast, even when you segmented the data by urbanity, race, and other factors. The difference between New Netherland – Greater New York City – and the Deep South was seven- to nine-fold.

Our report described the cultural factors contributing to these differences, referencing (and interviewing the authors of) past scholarship from cultural geographers, criminologists, and historians. But we were curious if there were big differences in gun ownership levels and attitudes toward gun control between the regions. Unfortunately, there’s no centralized federal database to tell you about gun ownership – Congress has effectively forbidden it at behest of the gun lobby – and most national polls aren’t rich enough to provide the kind of high-resolution picture needed to fuel a (county level-based) American Nations-driven analysis.

Nationscape is an exception. Vast in scale and open to researchers, this project led by UCLA political scientists Lynn Vavreck and Chris Tausanovitch, affords a rare and valuable look at what people in the different regional cultures think about key issues, or at least what they thought just a couple of years ago.

So what insights does it offer in understanding the enormous regional differences in deadly gun violence?

The survey asked six questions on guns and gun policy. We broke out the responses from the last thirteen weekly surveys before the 2020 election, encompassing a period starting on August 6 and ending on November 4 of that year and a total of 76,288 respondents. (We did this because they were the most recent, except for a special poll taken the following January in the immediate aftermath of the January 6th coup attempt. We also didn’t include smaller “enclave nations” like First Nation, New France, Spanish Caribbean and Greater Polynesia in this analysis because the sample sizes were smaller.) In almost every case, the regional patterns closely matched those we saw in our gun deaths research, with the respondents in the safest regions reporting they owned significantly fewer guns and wanted stronger gun control policies than those in the most dangerous regions.

In our previous research package we showed that New Netherland was far and away the safest place from gun violence in the country, regardless of whether you’re looking at homicides, suicides, or whites-only or blacks-only statistics. It’s also the region of the country with the lowest levels of gun ownership: 78 percent of respondents there said nobody in their household has a firearm. Two other regions with low per capita gun deaths, El Norte and Left Coast, also had low gun ownership: 65 and 64 percent of households respectively are gunless. Yankeedom and the Midlands were only slightly more armed with 62 and 58 percent of  homes foregoing guns.

By contrast, the three large nations with the highest per capita gun deaths – Greater Appalachia, Deep South, and Far West – had the fewest gunless households at 44, 50, and 51 percent respectively.

Nationscape also asked about 17,000 respondents in this time period what was more important, gun control or gun rights. In every region gun control won a majority – a promising sign if you want something done —  but by very different margins. Far West was essentially split on the issue, with 50.7 percent of those who responded choosing gun control . In Greater Appalachia that figure was 53.1 percent and in the Deep South it was 55.3. By contrast in New Netherland – again, the safest region by far – a staggering 78.9 percent chose gun control, and El Norte wasn’t far behind at 69.3. Yankeedom (63.4), Midlands (58.9) and Tidewater (58.1) were in between.

But how strict would they want this gun control to be? The same patterns generally held, except for the most lenient of the measures surveyed.

In no region was there an appetite to ban all guns, but support for this most draconian of measures was strongest in New Netherland with a -16 percent disapproval (34-50 with the rest unsure.) Left Coasters were the second most open to a total ban at -30 percent (28-58) with El Norte close behind at -35 percent (25-60) and Yankeedom in third at -46 (20-66.) On the other end of the spectrum, the Far West was the most hostile to a complete gun ban at -62 percent (13-75), followed immediately by Greater Appalachia at -61 (13-74). The Deep South, Tidewater and Midlands all came it at -54 percent.

However, majorities in all the regional cultures support prohibiting high-capacity gun magazines, defined as those with more than ten bullets. The margins of support followed the same pattern. New Netherland had the highest margin of support at +40 (59-19) with Left Coast next at +32 (55-23) and Yankeedom (+27 or 52-25) and El Norte (+25 or 51.2 to 26.6) following. Support was softest in Greater Appalachia at +4 (40-36), Far West (+8 or 44-36), and Deep South (+11 or 44-33). Tidewater (+16) and the Midlands (+18) were in the middle on this measure.

Support was somewhat stronger in all the regions for banning assault rifles. New Netherland again had the highest margin of support at +47 (66.1 to 19.5) followed by Left Coast at +39 (62.3 to 23.6), Yankeedom at +36 (61-25), and El Norte at +34 (59-25). Support was softest in Greater Appalachia at +9 (46-37), the Far West (+12 at 48-36) and Deep South (+19 or 51-32.) The Midlands (+24) and Tidewater (+26) were again in the middle of the pack.

One measure had overwhelming and essentially undifferentiated support in every regional culture: requiring background checks for all gun purchases. Support ranged from 81 to 87 percent in every region, which in this polarized age amounts to virtual unanimity. That’s a higher percentage of Americans than believe NASA really did land on the moon (71%) and that the Earth is round (80%).

The bottom line is that the most dangerous regions are also those least enthusiastic about gun control and where more people have guns. The safest regions – densely populated New Netherland and the Left Coast – have the opposite characteristics and the others generally line up following the same patterns (with some nuances in terms of specific gun control measures). But the takeaway is that, in the second half of 2020 at least, solid majorities of Americans from Greater Appalachia to New Netherland were ready to ban assault rifles and high-capacity magazines and to impose universal background checks for gun buyers. And taking away guns wasn’t a thing anywhere.

Colin Woodard is the director of Nationhood Lab at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy.