As there has been considerable interest in this question, I am copying my conclusion to the heading of this post. Read what follows if you want to know how I come to my two-fold answer to the question “How many gun owners are there in America today?”
(1) We don’t know with any certainty.
(2) AT LEAST 40% of American households probably have guns.
Having addressed the issue of how many guns there are in the United States today (twice, actually), and why people own them, I now consider the first of James D. Wright’s “Ten Essential Observations on Guns in America”: Half the households in the country own at least one gun.
Updating Wright’s first observation, although it would seem to be fairly straightforward, is actually quite challenging and controversial.
What percentage of households in the United States own guns? In 1995 Wright maintained that for 35 years “every survey has reported more or less the same result”: about half. Since 1995, things have gotten a bit more confusing. (Note: In the interest of time, I will focus here on the question of household gun ownership, rather than personal gun ownership.)
Some surveys, like the Gallup Poll, show household gun ownership rates to be between 40% and 50%, with annual fluctuations and a slight downward trend over the past 20 years.
A CBS News/New York Times poll similarly shows household gun ownership fluctuating between 40% and 50%, but in a downward trend since the early 1990s.
And the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey (GSS) shows household gun ownership rates declining, and below 40% since the late 1990s.
Note that in any given year these three surveys provide different estimates, which is a good reminder to us that what surveys produce are in fact ESTIMATES of the actual values in the population of interest. Therefore, among the factors that could lead to different estimates are:
(1) Different question wordings – e.g., “Do you happen to have in your home (IF HOUSE: or garage) any guns or revolvers?” (GSS) vs. “Do you have a gun in your home?” (GALLUP).
(2) Different sampling methodologies – e.g., the GSS uses a probability sample of households, where Gallup and many other opinion polls use probability samples of individuals.
(3) Different survey methodologies – e.g., most GSS interviews are done face to face and I imagine that Gallup and many other opinion polls are done by phone.
These caveats notwithstanding, all three of the surveys noted above reflect a downward trend in household gun ownership, and for the last year of available data, show some convergence once the margin of error for the estimates is taken into consideration (for the GSS it is +/-2%, and for the sake of simplicity, I will assume a =/-3% margin of error for Gallup and CBS):
- Gallup 2016: Estimate = 39%, Range: 36% to 42%
- CBS/NYT 2016: Estimate = 36%, Range: 33% to 39%
- GSS 2014: Estimate = 32.4%, Range: 30.4% to 34.4%
So if I was going to draw a conclusion, from these surveys at least, I would say that somewhere from one-third to 40 percent of American households have guns.
That is a whole helluva lot of households! Which, I should remind myself as I get lost in these details, is Wright’s point in the first place. As he wrote in 1995,
gun ownership is normative, not deviant, behavior across vast swaths of the social landscape. In certain states and localities, it would be an odd duck indeed who did not own a gun.
This seems true to me whether 50% of households own guns, 40%, or 30%. (I do recognize, of course, that the seemingly declining household gun ownership rate has been trumpeted by those who are anti-gun as signaling the decline and fall of American gun culture. In that sense, 30% is worse than 40% or 50%.)
MORE GUNS, FEWER GUN OWNING HOUSEHOLDS?
So, taking these estimates at face value for the moment, how might we square the growing number of guns in America with a declining percentages of gun-owning households?
Already in 1995 Wright offered one possible explanation: “many (and conceivably nearly all) of the new guns coming into circulation are being purchased by people who already own guns, as opposed to first-time purchases by households or individuals who previously owned no guns” (p. 63).
Indeed, even if there are SOME new gun owners purchasing, if the number of new gun owners is smaller than the number of existing gun owners who are passing away, then the rate of household gun ownership could go down.
But the notion that gun ownership rates are going down contradicts the idea that those raised in households with guns keep guns in their own households (socialization into gun culture) and that ALOT of new people are getting into guns for the first time (conversion to gun culture). So, whatever gun owning households drop out every year (through death) are AT LEAST being replaced. The rate of household gun ownership, then, should not be going down.
EXPLAINING THE SURVEY RESULTS
Given this uncertainty, we do well to consider different explanations for these survey results. The book chapter I had my students read by Legault and Lizotte, “Caught in a Crossfire: Legal and Illegal Gun Ownership in America,” considers some possible explanations for the declining household gun ownership rate. One of the co-authors, Richard Legault, in fact, has actually written an entire book on the issue of Trends in American Gun Ownership, from which the book chapter draws liberally.
Legault and Lizotte consider 5 different explanations of the declining rate of gun ownership:
- A reduction in average household size over time: This could lead to lower levels of household gun ownership both by (a) reducing the total number of people in a household who could own a gun and also (b) by reducing the number of different generations in a household who own a gun.
- A declining proportion of rural households (i.e., urbanization): If rural households are more likely to keep guns than urban households, and rural households become a relatively smaller share of all households in America, then a decline in household gun ownership over time could result.
- A rise in female headed households: Similar to the logic of urbanization, if women are less likely to own firearms than men, and more American households are headed by women, then a decline in household gun ownership over time could result.
- An actual reduction in the rate of household gun ownership by those who have traditionally been gun owners: If men or those raised in rural areas or the south – traditional strongholds of gun ownership – become less likely to own guns, then part of the decline in household gun ownership would be due not to the changing composition of households (as explained in 1-3) but to an actual reduction in gun ownership rates.
- Systematic under-reporting of household guns by women: It has long been known that female survey respondents underreport household gun ownership relative to male respondents. If women are increasingly likely to underreport household gun ownership – as some evidence suggests they are since 1988 – this would (erroneously) show up as a declining rate of gun ownership.
In his analysis, Legault points to explanations 1 and 3 as accounting for most of the decline. He and downplays explanations 4 and 5, and says that explanation 2 is untested.
In general, he and Lizotte conclude “that changes in reporting levels of household gun ownership can mostly be attributed to changing household demographic patterns” (p. 481).
WHAT ABOUT THAT SYSTEMATIC UNDER-REPORTING, THOUGH?
I put the issue of systematic under-reporting by women last because it provides a bridge into one of the biggest criticisms of survey-based studies of gun ownership: What if MANY people who live in gun-owning households – not just women – UNDER-REPORT gun ownership?
If the general under-reporting of gun ownership has increased over time, this too would (erroneously) create the appearance of declining gun ownership rates.
This explanation will certainly have been on the mind of many readers of this blog from the outset.
Of course, there is no way of knowing how many “false negatives” there are to a question about gun ownership, in the same way as there is no way of knowing how many “false positives” there are. But we do know that there are many people in the gun culture who are highly motivated not to report owning guns to outsiders, probably many more than there are people who do not own guns but are motivated to report that they do.
And we do know that with the increasing emphasis on gun control beginning with the Clinton administration and continued in the Obama administration, the motivation for not telling people you have guns is even greater.
The General Social Survey actually provides some important data suggesting there has been an increase in systematic under-reporting of gun ownership. Table 1 in the National Opinion Research Center report, “Trends in Gun Ownership in the United States, 1972-2014,” shows that in 2010 and 2014, over 3 percent of respondents refused to say whether they had guns in their household or not. For most years before 2000, the refusal rate was less than 1 percent. Every year after 2000, it was at least 1 percent and in some years 2 or 3 times that.
The high number of refusals to the GSS gun ownership question during the Obama administration suggests people are becoming increasingly guarded about admitting to owning guns. In addition to those 3+ percent, an unknown portion of respondents are “false negatives” – that is, they DO own guns but they SAY they DO NOT.
In the course of my research on Gun Culture 2.0, I have met and heard from many people in the gun culture who emphatically declare that they would never honestly answer a survey question about gun ownership. I don’t know what percentage of all guns owners these people constitute, but I do believe them. (In fact, many of them would not only refuse to answer a question about gun ownership, but they would never even agree to take a survey administered by the dirty academics at the University of Chicago.)
I also recently spoke to another sociologist who is studying an urban African American community. No friend of guns herself, she tells me the people in that community are extremely wary of people knowing they have firearms, given the history of racist denial of African American gun rights throughout American history.
And because felons not only cannot possess firearms but cannot even live in homes with firearms, the trend in America toward mass incarceration is a recipe for ever more under-reporting gun ownership.
Without question, then, surveys estimates of gun ownership rates today ought to be taken as an absolute minimum.
In the end, if I am asked “How many gun owners are there in America today?” my answer is always two-fold:
(1) We don’t know with any certainty.
(2) At least 40% of American households probably have guns.