What about guns divides Americans?

Firearms are shown for sale at the AO Sword gun store in El Cajon, California, January 5, 2016. President Barack Obama said on Monday his new executive actions to tighten gun rules were "well within" his legal authority and consistent with the U.S. right to bear arms, a warning to opponents who are likely to challenge them in court. REUTERS/Mike Blake

When asked about free speech, freedom of religion or the right to vote, gun owners and non-gun owners overwhelmingly offer their support. But if you ask them about guns, they quickly split into two camps.

Half of U.S. adults say gun violence is a big problem. But a wide opinion gap exists between gun owners and non-gun owners about whether or not gun ownership is an essential right — and a new survey from Pew Research Center attempts to better understand why.

Pollsters — including Pew — often ask policy-oriented questions about guns, such as whether or not the United States should control guns more or less rigidly. But this is the first time in two decades of gun surveys that Pew has tried to better understand people's relationships with guns, said Juliana Horowitz, who researches social trends for the center.

"Americans have broad exposure to guns, whether they own one or not," Horowitz said.

For years, the gun control debate has been "dominated by people with strong views," she said. These policy debates often follow high-profile mass shootings, including t the June 14 attack on an early morning practice for the Congressional baseball game in Alexandria, Virginia. But despite the ebb and flow of public outcry on the issue, little changes after these debates.

"We wanted to get beyond the policy views and really understand people's relationships with guns," Horowitz said.

Roughly three-quarters of gun owners in Pew's nationally representative survey say having a firearm is a personal freedom; just a third of non-gun owners feel the same way.

If such a wide gulf of opinion exists about gun ownership and personal rights, "that could make it very difficult to agree," Horowitz said.

Among gun owners, there's also a generational difference when it comes to in the perceived role of guns in the home. Overall, two-thirds of owners said protection is the main reason why they keep a gun in the house. Nearly four out of 10 owners say they have guns because they hunt. But if you look at responses from adults age 30 or younger, eight out of 10 young adults say they want a gun for protection, while just a third of adults age 65 and older wanted guns for the same reason.

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