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


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.