More high-school and college students plan to own guns in adulthood than actually grew up with guns in their houses, a new national survey reveals.
The results are surprising, study researchers say, because younger Americans tend to be more anti-gun than older people.
"This is a generation of people who all grew up post-Columbine and who have been aware of egregious gun violence incidents over the course of their entire lives," said study researcher Jennifer Lawless, a professor of government at American University. "And yet they still plan to own guns in their homes."
It's possible, Lawless told LiveScience, that violent shooting incidents such as the one at Columbine High School in 1999 have even boosted interest in gun ownership, by bringing the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms to the forefront in young people's minds. [5 Milestones in Gun Control History]
Gun ownership in America
The number of U.S. households with guns has been dropping. In 2010, 32.3 percent of homes in America reported owning a gun, down from a peak of 54 percent in 1977, according to a 2011 report by the Violence Policy Center.
In the new survey, which ran from September to October 2012 (before the latest mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.), researchers queried a national sample of 2,100 high-school students and 2,100 college students about a variety of political beliefs, including attitudes toward guns. The results mesh well with the Violence Policy Center's numbers; in the new study, 34 percent of high-school students and 33 percent of college students said they grew up with a gun in the house.
When asked if they plan on having a gun in their own home as an adult, 32 percent of high-schoolers and 43 percent of college students said yes, an unexpected statistic. Another 28 percent of high-schoolers and 17 percent of college students said they'd "maybe" have a gun in their homes as adults.
"College students tend to be more liberal than the average population," said study researcher Richard Fox, a political scientist at Loyola Marymount University. "I was surprised that more college students said they plan on owning a gun than had one in their households."
Social links to guns
It's not entirely clear why students might be more interested than their families in owning guns, Fox told LiveScience, though desire for self-defense may play a role, as young people who watched TV news were more likely to report wanting a firearm. Nor is it clear whether the students' gun-owning plans will ever come to fruition, Fox said, but their willingness to entertain the notion suggests a positive-to-neutral view of the weapons.
There were some demographic differences in gun attitudes, the researchers found. About 36 percent of respondents described themselves as "very worried" about gun violence; these very worried people were less likely than others to want to own a gun themselves. Women were more worried about gun violence than men and were also less likely to want a gun. Likewise, about half of black respondents said they were worried about gun violence compared with 31 percent of white respondents. Black students were less likely than white students to say they wanted to own a firearm as adults.
Other differences fell along party lines. Democrats were almost twice as likely to fear gun violence as Republicans, and were less interested in owning weapons.
In a troubling finding, students who described themselves as "depressed," "stressed out" or having trouble making friends (about half of the sample reported one of these) were more likely to want to own a gun. So were people who reported playing more than four hours of video games each day. Though the study doesn't suggest that avid gamers are likely to become homicidal, these isolated and depressed traits might be risk factors for someone more likely than most to do harm to themselves or others, Lawless told LiveScience.
"If the people who are playing video games more than four hours and are somewhat isolated, who are somewhat depressed, are also more likely to believe they would own a gun in the future, we need to make sure we have background checks in place and mental health checks in place to ensure that these people have the ability to have these kind of guns," she said.
The survey results are part of a larger study to be released later this year about political attitudes and ambitions in American youth.
Sign up for the Live Science daily newsletter now
Get the world’s most fascinating discoveries delivered straight to your inbox.
Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.