Mythbusting

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a number of conversations about guns, gun rights, and gun restrictions. Invariably, I’ve found those with whom I was conversing to be misinformed on one or another detail and had formed their opinions based on this bad information. I’m going to kick off a mini series here in which I take some of the more egregious myths that are being propagated and expose them to the light of research and reason.  The first such myth that I’d like to address is the one about how the number of people who own guns in the U.S. is on a decline . . .

One of the first techniques that political operators learn is the divide and conquer method or the “us versus them” approach.  If you can get your prospective audience to identify with the “us”, you can usually get them to look down on the “thems”. One of the foundational principles of the the gun control movement is that the stronger gun laws favored by a sizable majority of Americans are being blocked by a small, but vocal minority. “Why,” they ask, “should we allow a small group of people to prevent anti-gun legislation that is supported by a clear majority of voters?”

When someone brings up the inconvenient fact that that gun sales have been running at record high levels for the last couple of years, they reply that it’s not due to new people buying their first gun. Rather, it’s because existing gun owners are simply adding to their collections. They support this contention with one recent poll showing the number of gun owners in America has sharply declined over the past decade or so.

In March of 2013, the New York Times trumpeted a four decade decline in gun ownership, citing the latest data from the 2012 General Social Survey (GSS) which is conducted every other year by the National Opinion Research Center. The poll takers asked if respondents “have in their home or garage any guns or revolvers.” When the GSS first asked about gun ownership back in 1973, the number of households that reported owning a gun stood at 49%.  In 2012, that number had dropped to 34%.

Looks like a serious decline to me, but gun control advocates shouldn’t be popping champagne corks just yet. You see, according to the Gallup organization which has included a gun ownership question in their polls since 1960, the percentage of homes in which the owners admitted to having a gun has ranged from a high of 51% in 1993 to a low of 34% in 1998. As of the latest poll in 2012, reported gun ownership was at 43%.

Who is to be believed here? The GSS suggests that roughly one third of U.S. households own guns while Gallup puts the number at nearly half. To further confuse the issue is another inconvenient (for gun grabbers) fact that according to the FBI, the number of firearm background checks conducted during 2012 through the National Instant Criminal Check System (NICS) was 19% higher than 2011’s count. As for 2013, the number of checks conducted through the end of August 2013 had already reached 72% of the total number of checks conducted in 2012 meaning that 2013 is very likely to be another record year. Unfortunately, NICS checks aren’t specific enough for us to draw direct conclusions.

NICS data tracks the number of checks initiated, not the number of guns sold. In some cases, a customer may purchase more than one gun on a single NICS check. In other cases, no gun at all may be ultimately purchased. That said, I would suspect that the number of people who go through the hassle of a NICS check and then don’t buy a gun is probably a small one. We also know that most companies are experiencing record growth in firearm sales, so it’s reasonable to conclude that there certainly are a lot of new guns headed into the hands of Americans.

Given the variation in the statistics as well as the information from the FBI, many different conclusions can be drawn. Gun control advocates suggest that most of these new guns are being bought by existing gun owners who are simply adding to their collections. Gun rights proponents disagree. Unfortunately, there is no good way to get a solid answer on this topic, so we have to use some of that common sense the gun control people are always blathering on about. Consider the following:

  1. Given the current environment and concern about Government oversight, NSA spying, etc, I would suggest that if people are going to lie during a poll, they are more likely to say that they don’t own a gun when they do as opposed to saying that they do own a gun when they don’t. I would argue that the number of people who don’t fess up to owning a gun may very well result in a few percentage points of error in the poll.
  2. The results of the GSS and Gallup polls differ by nine points, which could be related to their respective polling methods. The GSS conducts all polls in face to face interviews while Gallup uses phone based ones. People who might already be reluctant to admit to owning a gun at all are likely to be even more reluctant to do it in a face-to-face situation.
  3. Gun sales are up and have been for a number of years. Certainly a good percentage of this increase is attributable to existing gun owners adding to their collections and the proposed anti-gun legislation in early 2013 certainly stoked the fires. On the other hand, the number of NRA instructors certified to teach the basic NRA classes has increased by nearly 66% over the past five years.  Experienced gun owners adding to their collections generally don’t drive demand for introductory courses.  New gun owners do.

So, where does that leave us?  On the one hand, while the evidence that suggests gun ownership being on the rise is anecdotal, there is also a lack of unambiguous data to support the New York Times’ contention that ownership is on the decline.  While the anti-gun crowd likes to spout the term, “Common Sense,” many of that persuasion repeatedly demonstrate a complete lack of it.  Yes, there is one major poll that concludes that gun ownership is on the decline, but a second major poll sharply disagrees with that conclusion and the increases in NICS checks and number of certified NRA instructors certainly suggests a conclusion other than what the Times arrived at.  So the next time, you hear someone talk about how gun owners are on the decline, you can show them how much of a low information voter they really are.

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67 Responses to Mythbusting: Gun Ownership Is On the Decline in the U.S.

    • Indeed. Those surveys should be called ‘how many people we could trick into telling random strangers about their guns over the phone’….

      No thanks. Not sure if in person would make things worse or better. I’ve never heard about the increase in NRA instructors before. Good stat.

      • Btw I’d bet that if you overlay the graphs for percentage of people that trust their government and the percentage of people that say yes to the questions of gun ownership, they lines would track down at the same curve.

    • When someone calls me with a poll, I don’t care what the poll is about, I tell them that I won’t participate in their poll.

      So many of these polls are bogus, either trying to ellicit a certain response, or trying to sell something, or leading to a donation pitch, I don’t want any part of it. I call for a POLL REVOLT. Refuse to feed these bastards data that they can twist to their own nefarious purposes. Render their already useless work even less meaningful than before. POLL REVOLT!

      • That’s very true. I had a conversation with a young man who called me for my responses in a political poll. When I commented that the questions were very leading – or misleading – to paint a positive picture for the Democratic candidate, he admitted that his company was hired to do just that.

    • The truth for me is if you call my house and ask about firearms ownership, I will deny owning them. I now who you CLAIM to be but NOT who you really are and how the data is going to be used or correlated. If you have my phone number, a reverse search on a phone listing will easily reveal my surname and address, and then matching with other government records is very simple.

    • It does not matter if I know who is asking, the answer is always no. A few decades ago, I might have said yes if I knew it was a legit poll. With today’s vicious politics coming from the left, who knows what will happen if any of the dem’wits are able to scrounge up any information on who owns what. I live near Portland, a place where monuments are made to anarchists, where it is not uncommon for activists to gather outside the homes of political opponents or follow them to their cars to force a physical confrontation. Portland is a place where expressing your politics to the wrong person as anything other than Democrat Party can actually be dangerous. Nope, I tell no one that I have firearms, and I know I am not the only one that says no.

    • I personally believe we have a moral duty to lie to pollsters – if enough of us do that, they will go out of business and politicians might have to start telling us what they really believe – not what they think we want to hear.

      Do you have a gun in your home? Good heavens no, guns are evil!

  1. Industry seems to believe there are first time buyers out there. For example rifles such as the Axis and M&P sport seem to be aimed (if you’ll for give me) at entry level buyers.

  2. Hey, random person who called me on the phone asking about my guns, let me tell you about my tragic boating accident.

  3. I don’t know about other places, but my LGS, which includes a range, has seen a huge uptick in new shooters. Many of them in the 18-30 or so age range. Many don’t own a firearm (either because they can’t afford it or they still live at home and their parents don’t want a firearm in the house), but they still love to come and rent a port and firearm for an hour to try something out. Some I think are there just because of Call of Duty, but there are also those who simply want to learn something new. They don’t really have any preconceived notions about firearms. They just see it as a new experience.

    • Yes, I see the same thing. I’ve been to 3 Appleseed shoots this year and observed many first time shooters using loaner 10/22’s at the events (provided by instructors). Several having never before fired a gun and knowing absolutely nothing about them. And I mean nothing. In discussing with the experienced instructors, they say there’s been a big increase in newbies in the last year or two. Same with the CCW trainers I’ve discussed this with.

    • +1

      I’ve been shooting for a pretty long time and visiting ranges for a long time and have NEVER seen as many brand new shooters and first-time purchasers than I have in the past few years. It increased w/ Obama’s first election, as far as I can remember, it increased again after the next election, shot up like freaking crazy after last December, etc. But those were sudden spikes in what I’ve felt has been a general upward trend for many years.

  4. Ok, let’s just say for the shake argument that gun ownership was declining.

    What does that have to do with price of tea in China…

    Just because someone doesn’t own guns doesn’t mean they’re in favor of gun control or bans… Not owning a gun doesn’t equal being pro gun control.

    I know lots of people who don’t own weapons, but are against gun control and bans.

    Hell, being liberal doesn’t automatically equate to being anti gun, I know hardcore liberals that have weapons that would make Feinstein blush.

    • And, of course, one of the main reasons for the bill of rights was to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. Thus, it doesn’t legally matter in the end if 99 plus percent of people want to ban guns. Though of course it matters if the 99 percent decide to be bullies.

      • Very true!

        Tyranny of the majority is exactly why we are a Constitutional Republic, not a Democracy as the bullies would have you believe.

  5. I see many more newbies, either buying, renting, or training, at the ranges I frequent than I have in past years. My friends in other parts of the US say the same. Hardly scientific observations, and not in any way a random sample of ranges, but inconsistent with the idea that ownership is declining.

    After Sandy hook, I couldn’t even get to the counter many times I went in to buy ammo, and I overheard many people asking newbie questions and for suggestions about what they should buy for either carry or home defense. If ownership is drastically declining, I’m not seeing it in my area.

  6. Anyone I don’t know who calls me to ask about my guns is going to get an earful of the most colorful profanity they have ever heard, including complete descriptions of a couple of anatomically impossible acts and one or two practices that are illegal even in the Ozarks.

  7. The only I see problem with more people having guns is the increased competition for resources when SHTF. Well that and people buying up all the ammo now.

    • Even if SHTF more people having guns is a good thing. In almost every end of days type scenario bullets are the most widely accepted currency. If you are in an area where everyone has an armory, not only will people be more likely to be polite, but parts will be much easier to get.

  8. Gun ownership is sky rocketing. Reporting you own a gun is declining. This is not rocket science here.

    Nobody wants to end up on a website that reports all the data like what happened in new york a few months ago.

  9. Just looking at Illinois FOID registrations (in your earlier article) proves that the number of legal gun owners is ever increasing – even in a state where you have to jump through ridiculous hoops to exercise your constitutionally guaranteed right to own firearms.

    IL FOID [Firearm Owner’s ID] Card Holders

    Calendar year Active FOID Cards

    2010 : 1,316,508
    2011 : 1,395,114
    2012 : 1,476,408
    As of 09/06/13 : 1,633,039

    • To be fair, some of that is due to a uniquely local issue. Prior to McDonald, handguns were banned in Chicago. You’re obviously going to see an uptick in gun ownership when one of the largest cities in America is set free.

  10. Don’t be too quick to say “UNFORTUNATELY, NICS checks aren’t specific enough for us to draw direct conclusions.” The last thing I want is the government or anyone else to be able to crunch any data from those checks!

  11. Even if it is only a third of the population, that is not a “small minority.” Try dividing anything into thirds and tell me that it is no big deal.

    • That’s the way it was during the Revolutionary War. One third wanted to stay with English rule, one third sat on the fence and did nothing, and one third of them took up their flintlocks to kick out the Redcoats.
      I think this rule of thirds has played out like this throughout most of man’s history.

  12. In addition to the increasing number of FOID cards in states that require them, we should also mention the increasing number of concealed carry permits in states that issue them. Not conclusive, but one more factoid in our favor.

    • Especially those states where a carry permit allows one to bypass the NICS check. I’ve NEVER had to go through the NICS check (except I think one gun store may have done it automatically using their computer system).

  13. Great job Jim and I look forward to the rest of your series. I’d never tell anyone conducting a survey that I own any guns, which might be good or bad because it could throw off the stats. I’ve had a lot of my friends add to their collection recently, but I know a ton of first time buyers who decided to buy before they lose their rights forever. I’ve also taken several people from work to the range and now they’re also new gun owners. My state is probably near the top of the list of COMMIE gun hating states, but I’m lucky enough to live in a city where our police dept. respects gun owners and the 2A. I love teaching new shooters and I don’t even charge them for the ammo because I’m thrilled that they’re will to give our sport a chance. I haven’t had anyone leave the range after shooting with me who said that they hated shooting. Every single person has told me that the loved it and couldn’t wait to shoot again.

    • And all those additional NICS checks? All me. All I do, day in and day out, is drive from gun store to gun store, go through the process of buying a gun up to the NICS check, then change my mind and go to the next store. It’s a tough life, but someone’s go to do it.

  14. “Unfortunately, NICS checks aren’t specific enough for us to draw direct conclusions”
    Fortunately you mean.

  15. Last time I was at the range in PA, there was a group of ten young people out from NYC renting every gun in the place, shooting prodigious amounts of expensive ammo, and having a heck of a good time. They were all newbies, judging from their skills.

    • Q – Do you own a gun?

      A – How long have you been beating your spouse?

      Usually that becomes the end of the conversation.

  16. This is topic is very important to both sides. Growing the population that is involved in proper gun ownership is the long game required to continue winning the political battles.

    As Breitbart used to say, culture is upstream of politics.

    We have to win the culture, or all current wins in the courts and state houses and congressional chambers will set aside by a next generation that does not care. That means growing the legal gun owner population of enthusiasts.

  17. As Steve D. pointed out above, Illinois has experienced a 24% increase in FOID’s since 2010. It’s likely that the increase in licensed individuals that we’ve seen in Illinois can be extrapolated across the bulk of the states.

    The US population has gone from 184 million in 1960 to 314 million today; a 73% increase. New estimates on the number of firearms owned by US civilians range from the low of 310 million to a high of 400 million or so. It could well be a fact that the number of households owning a firearm has declined since 1960 but it is highly unlikely that the number of individuals owning firearms has declined.

    Just for fun let’s do a back of the envelope calculation. Let’s say that the average household comprises 4 individuals, and to keep it simple we divide the total population in a given year by 4 to arrive at the number of households. In 1960 there were 184M people divided by 4 equals 45.25M households. in 2012 there were 314M people divided by 4 equals 78.5M households. The Gallup data says that in 1960, 49% of households had guns; so that would be 22.17M households. Just to be on the conservative side, we’ll use the 2012 population (314M people and 78.5 M households) along with the 1998 low of 34% of households owning guns. 78.5M households times 0.34 equals 26.9M households today. So we see that, yes, as a percentage of the total number of households there are fewer that claim (and here CLAIM is a very important word) but the total number of households today that claim to own guns is still higher, actually a 21.3% increase from 1960 to 2012 (26.9M / 22.17M).

    Many states can’t process license applications fast enough because the demand is so high (or they’re incompetent or they’re intentionally stalling like here in Massachusetts). That said, it looks to me like the people that are coming up with these statistics are deluding themselves and aren’t being very rigorous in their analysis. So what else is new?

  18. Keep in mind also that the number of people who guns is not indicative of the number of people who support the RKBA. The media keep confusing the number of gun owners as equally the number of gun rights supporters. That is like saying that the number of people who support gay rights is dependent on the number of people who are gay. Or the number of people who support free speech rights is dependent on the number of people who are journalists and/or openly critical of the government in public venues. What counts is the number of people who support the RKBA, not the number of gun owners alone. Education on the right is what’s most important regarding the public.

  19. One point about the NICS check count – In any state that requires a permit to purchase a firearm the applicant undergoes an NICS check before the application is approved and then is free to purchase as many firearms as they want without additional checks for as long as the permit is valid. Furthermore, CCW permits generally have the additional benefit of functioning as a purchase permit only they are valid for 5 years or so. There are a significant number of states with permit to purchase requirements and in those states the number of NICS checks are likely to be dwarfed by the actual number of purchases.

  20. Of course gun ownership is decreasing. Isn’t that so wonderful! I don’t have several guns. Intend to not have another very soon. That should keep the anti’s happy! Now stranger on mu phone STFU and GTFO.

  21. The last time I answered the phone and got one of those “poll” screeners it went like this:

    Poll Company: “Sir would you mind answering a few questions, for your time we’ll enroll you in a free drawing for a fruit basket.”

    Me: I’m already pissed that I mistakenly answered the call, but decide to play along. “Sure, I just might win that fruit basket. But if you ask me personal questions, I get to ask you personal questions.”

    Poll Company: “Sir, alright. Lets begin. Do you believe that the Constitution gives Americans the right to be armed?”

    Me: “Yes, it most certainly does, do YOU believe that?”

    Poll Company: “Yes I do. Next question, do you think that citizens should be able to own ANY weapon, for ANY purpose?”

    Me: “If you’re talking hydrogen, nuclear, atomic or chemical weapons then the answer is no. If you’re line of questioning means small arms, then yes.”

    Poll Company: “Do you personally own any weapons, and if so, please describe them?”

    Me: “No, guns scare me and does your wife like anal sex?”

    Poll Company: (Silence)

    Me: “Hello?”

    Poll Company: (More Silence…)

    Me: “Got to go, have a nice day.”

  22. I’m glad to see you taking on this topic. Well done. In addition to the anecdotal evidence we see from firearms retailers and ranges being busier than ever and seeing a more diverse clientele than ever before, there is the annual retailer survey conducted by NSSF that shows store owners report that 25% of their customers are first time.

  23. I think you meant to write: “***FORTUNATELY***, NICS checks aren’t specific enough for us to draw direct conclusions.”

  24. I like to play a game with anti-gunowner advocates called: “What if you are right — then what?”

    In this case, it means a decline in the guys who have one gun in the closet and rarely use it, and an increase in the active hobbyists who owns many guns, some of which are semiauto and some of which have 11+ round mags. Unlike the one gun in the closet guy, the active hobbyist almost certainly will fight any attack on his gun rights by campaigning and voting (as seen in CO).

    Also, it means that the number of guns per gunowner has increased greatly during a period when shootings have decreased greatly. Anti-gunowner advocates have long wanted to limit the number of guns that an individual can possess. In view of the facts, common sense now dictates that anti-gunowner advocates renounce such demands.

  25. There is one aspect of this poll concept not being mentioned. It’s that the poll worker’s called you, they have your number and can flag that number for various reasons. Also its not hard to indentify the owner of that number.

    That said, one who admits to an unknown and basically unidentifiable caller of gun ownership subjects themselves to backdoor registration. Registry of guns being illegal on a federal level doesn’t seem to stop those that want to identify gun owners.

    Let’s look at the possibility of these polls possibly being used as a way to identify a gun owner, who is going to end up with that info and used for what other purposes.

    There already concerns that the NSA is already actively identifying gun owners as it is becoming clear that privacy has been breached in many ways in the US as it is.

    I see no reason to feed these organizations any more breach of privacy. If someone calls that you don’t know asking about ANY private issue, hang up without saying a word.

  26. Two points here that bear highlighting:

    Anecdotally it seems unanimous that none of us will report owning guns to a stranger asking and that all those who reported one way or the other are seeing more new shooters instead of less.

    We’re many people spread out over 40 or so years and across the country. It’s certainly not scientific but I’m going to go with the preponderance of evidence, the NCIS data, the huge uptick in sales, the mass increase of basic level NRA instructors, the anecdotal reports and go with there are MORE gun owners, not less.

    In my home base of southern Ohio gun ownership is the rule rather than the exception. Even in homes where no one has fired a shot in years or decades there is still usually a gun or two somewhere to be had. They may be ‘inactive’ gun owners, but gun owners none the less. It’s this way across the region, virtually every household possesses arms. I wonder sometimes if they poll rural regions at all.

  27. In our household, we won’t even tell our doctors that we own firearms. Not that such a question has ever been posed to us, here in Houston; but you never know. Our pre-arranged response to a doctor’s inquiry, during the Reign of Error that is Obamacare, will be that we don’t get involved in those types of political discussions and that this appointment is to address specific personal health objectives, not current controversies in public policy. If pressed, we’ll hasten the appointment, quietly and politely depart, then find a new doctor.

  28. On my call to 911, about a trespasser, in the front of my posted property, he asked if we had any weapons in the house.

    I stated that we have a couple large kitchen drawers full of 10″ and 12″ knives, cleavers, and several Rolling Pins! I noted that we own a really huge roll-around tool box of hatchets, huge plumbing wrenches up to 24 inche length, crowbars, really large screwdrivers, and hammers, plus, in our garage and sheds are axes, shovels, spades, slate bars, chainsaws, chains and jack handles!

    There are even aluminum baseball bats behind the main entry door!

    And, yes sir, we also collect Gurka Kukris, 18 to 22 inch Machetes, swords, spears, throwing axes, and Bowie knives of many sizes, in large quantities!

    Dispatch said “No, I mean firearms, for the safety of the officers responding!” I said, “Oh!
    OK, as soon as they get here, I will unload this Remington 870 and put it back on the wall rack!”

    Sheesh, I told the Dispatcher, I am retired Military, NOT “retarded militant”! I don’t fire on folks trying to rescue an idiot with a death wish, who is on my front lawn!

    But, it seems from the news reports that most 911 dispatchers are poorly trained civilians, if they are trained at all, and most have no LE experience, so, are required to follow a “monkey script” no matter that it couldn’t possibly cover every situation!

  29. I think that distrust of anyone having any kind of record of gun ownership is so high right now in the gun community that the vast majority either lie about owning a gun, or outright refuse to participate in such polls. Thus I think that there really isn’t any way to know if gun ownership is on the rise, steady or on the decline. Even sales don’t really tell you anything because owning a gun is like eating potato chips…it’s really hard to have just one.

  30. Look at the gun range membership numbers: UP!
    Look at the number of new gun ranges: UP!
    Look at the number of CCW permits issued: UP!

    That’s not old gun owners adding to their collections. That’s demonstrably NEW gun owners.

  31. I am a democrat I believe in what they stand for EXCEPT trying to take our gun RIGHTS away I bout my first gun at 30 last year not because of fear but a planed decision. I am going to purchase my second this year. when I go look at guns almost 70% are asking the same question I do so I know they are relatively new to gun ownership. Also iI have relatives who dont own guns who cant stand the thought of gun control and they are democrat too. Do the democrats know that this could affect voting?

  32. Of course I have no guns!, but i might if it didnot take so darn long for a ck that could take seconds, for a non-felon,combat-vet, without even a parking ticket! You really think Obama isnt winning? dream on!!!

  33. Check the census. The number of households has increased over the same periods reported by the General Social Survey and the Gallup polls. In each case, the reported decline in the PERCENTAGE of households reporting gun ownership means a net INCREASE in total households containing guns of approximately 8 million.

    Yet this is reported as “declining NUMBERS of gun owners.” No, the NUMBER is increasing – by a minimum of eight million, if you assume either of the surveys is accurate.

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