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MONDAY, June 29, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Guns are owned by nearly one in three Americans. And many of those people are part of a "social gun culture" that includes hunters and gun club members, a new survey finds.
"We were not surprised by the degree of gun ownership," said study lead author Bindu Kalesan. "But what is never really emphasized in studies that quantify ownership is how it relates to the concept of gun culture -- meaning involvement in social events that revolve around guns."
The poll of 4,000 adults indicated that gun owners are more than twice as likely as non-owners to engage in gun-related activities involving friends and family.
Overall, the survey determined that roughly 29 percent of Americans own one or more of the estimated 300 million firearms in private hands in the United States.
Most gun owners are white men who are married and over 55, according to the study published online June 29 in Injury Prevention.
Gun ownership varies widely from state to state. Ownership is 50 percent higher in states with higher gun death rates, compared with states with lower gun death rates, said Kalesan, an adjunct professor in the epidemiology department at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York City.
Alaska tops the gun ownership list, with nearly 62 percent of residents owning guns. Arkansas, Idaho, Montana, West Virginia and Wyoming are next, with more than half of adults in those states possessing firearms.
Gun ownership is least common among five East Coast states. Less than 6 percent of Delaware and Rhode Island residents own guns. In New York, New Jersey and New Hampshire, guns are owned by 10 percent, 11 percent and 14 percent of residents, respectively, the survey found.
If guns are a part of their social life, people are far more likely to own one, the researchers concluded.
Among those who don't own a gun, only about 6 percent said they were exposed to gun culture through activities, friends or family.
By contrast, one-third of those who said they're part of a gun-culture social life reported owning a gun, evidence of a "strong association" between gun ownership and gun culture, said the study authors.
Jeffrey Swanson, a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, N.C., agreed that gun culture is firmly rooted in the United States.
"It's important to realize that this is the country we live in," he said. "Guns are domesticated. We celebrate them, and have a lot of them. It's part of the landscape."
Many people own guns "not just because they want to hunt but also because they simply like guns and are part of a group that likes guns," he said. They feel a sense of meaning and belonging that's "centered around guns, and also around the ethic of personal protection and the constitutional right to have a gun," he added.
"All we can do is try and figure out who are the dangerous people who should not have guns," Swanson said. "There actually is some common ground on this need, shared by both gun owners and non-owners."
About 34,000 Americans died in 2013 as a result of gun-related violence, the study authors said. In January 2014, a study reported in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine found that people with access to a gun are three times more likely to die by suicide and almost twice as likely to be the victim of a homicide as people without such access.
Efforts by HealthDay to reach the National Rifle Association for comment on the survey were unsuccessful.
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SOURCES: Bindu Kalesan, Ph.D., adjunct professor, department of epidemiology, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, New York City, and vice president, Gun Violence Survivors Foundation, Philadelphia; Jeffrey Swanson, Ph.D., professor, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, N.C.; June 29, 2015, Injury Prevention, online