Why Do People Own Firearms in the United States Today?

Following my last post about how many guns there are in America today, here I address the third of James Wright’s “Ten Essential Observations on Gun in America: Most of those (now 285 million or more) guns are owned for “socially innocuous sport and recreational purposes.”

On this point, Wright’s observation in 1995 is not exactly true today, 20+ years later.


Again, the students were assigned three contemporary readings on Wright’s first three observations:

  • “The Stock and Flow of US Firearms: Results from the 2015 National Firearms Survey,” a yet-to-be-published manuscript by Azrael, Hepburn, Hemenway, and Miller (connect to it here).
  • “Caught in a Crossfire: Legal and Illegal Gun Ownership in America,” by Richard L. Legault an Alan J. Lizotte (published in a 2009 Handbook on Crime and Deviance).
  • Selection from Shooters: Myths and Realities of America’s Gun Cultures by Abigail A. Kohn (published in 2005).

Certainly, a major point of Kohn’s book is that shooters own and use guns for what Wright calls “socially innocuous sport and recreational purposes.” Kohn uses the phrase “gun enthusiasm” to characterize the orientation of the sport shooters she studied ethnographically in the San Francisco Bay Area. Kohn argues, “At its most basic, gun enthusiasm is an enjoyment of and enthusiasm for firearms. Gun enthusiasts, like enthusiasts of any kind, take pleasure in the handling and use of the object of their pleasure” (p. 9). In other words, they approach shooting as a form of serious leisure. Hence Wright’s assertion that, “for the most part, gun ownership is apparently a topic more appropriate to the sociology of leisure than to the criminology or epidemiology of violence” (p. 65).

This has been so for a long time. A 1978 survey of gun owners found that 71 percent owned them for leisure purposes (hunting, target shooting, and collecting). Twenty years later, an ABC News/Washington Post poll similarly found that nearly two-thirds of the respondents cited recreation as the main reason they owned a firearm, including 49 percent hunting, 8 percent target/sport shooting, and 4 percent collecting (reported by the Pew Research Center). Fast forward nearly 20 more years: the 2015 National Firearms Survey, which my students read this semester, allowed respondents to name multiple primary reasons for firearms ownership and found that 40% named hunting, 34% collecting, and 28% sporting use.


That said, the majority of gun owners today – especially new gun owners – point to self-defense as the primary reason for owning a gun. In a 1999 ABC News/Washington Post poll, 26 percent of respondents cited protection as being the primary reason for owning a gun; by 2013, that proportion had grown to 48 percent (Pew Research Center). Hunting, target/sport shooting, and gun collecting together declined by a roughly equal amount.

More recently, the 2015 National Firearms Survey (NFS) found 63% of respondents indicated “protection against people” to be a primary reason for owning a firearm.

Significantly, the 2015 NFS also identified individuals who own only handguns as “a distinct group, more likely to be female, non-white and urban (when compared with other guns owners), and less likely to have grown up in a house with a gun” (p. 8).

So the recreational use of guns remains a significant aspect of American gun culture. But the center of gravity is clearly shifting from the older Gun Culture 1.0 grounded in sport and recreation to the newer Gun Culture 2.0 ground in armed self-defense.


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