Survey Questions About Guns: What Would You Ask?

Recently, a major national research organization asked for my input on a study of gun owners they are launching soon. Since I have taken advantage of their work often in the past, I was happy to share my time and thoughts with them.


Of course I emphasized the importance of trying to understand the phenomenon of Gun Culture 2.0.

Gun Culture 2.0 is centered on armed self-defense, with a strong emphasis on concealed carry. This can be old gun owners who have shifted from the hunting/recreational shooting emphasis of GC1.0, or new gun owners who are getting into guns largely for personal protection (thought to be younger, more female, more racially diverse, more sub/urban).

So, questions about primary reason(s) for gun ownership are good, but also questions about people’s background with guns such as:

How old were you when you acquired your first gun? What motivated your acquisition?

Were there guns in your childhood home? How old were you when you first shot a gun?

It also make sense to (continue to) ask about ownership of different types of guns, because a long-gun only person is much more GC1.0 than a handgun only person who is more GC2.0. (Enough people have asked about how many guns do you own to make that less interesting, and it is not really relevant to the question of GC2.0 IMO.)

In my work on gun ownership using the General Social Survey, I focused on PERSONAL gun ownership rather than HOUSEHOLD gun ownership. Each has its strengths and weakness, so it may make sense to be able to distinguish between the two.

It might also be interesting to ask a question about PLANS TO ACQUIRE GUN for a non-gun owning panel. Like the National Survey of Private Ownership of Firearms (NSPOF) (Cook & Ludwig, 1996): Those who replied “no” to their gun ownership question were then asked,

“Are you planning to get a firearm for protection against crime anytime in the next 12 months?”

Of the 2,516 (weighted) Rs who provided a valid (“yes” or “no”) response to the household gun ownership question, 1,550 (61.6%) reported no guns in the household. Of these 1,550 Rs, 108 (7.1%) reported they were planning to get a gun for protection in the next 12 months and 1,404 (90.6%) said they did not.

I think it is high time for someone to again ask a good question about people’s actual practices of gun carrying. I have not seen this since the NATIONAL SELF-DEFENSE SURVEY back in the 1990s. Kleck and Gertz’s 1998 article, “Carrying Guns for Protection” discusses the very careful question about gun carrying they asked:

“In the last 12 months, have you ever carried a gun away from home, either on your person or in a vehicle, for protection against crime? Do not count carrying for recreation or in connection with duties in law enforcement, work as a security guard, or in the armed forces” (emphases in original survey instrument).

Those who replied “yes” were then asked,

“Was this carrying done on your person-for example, in a pocket, holster, or bag-or was it only in a motor vehicle?”

Those responding “on person” or “both” were then asked,

“About how many days in the past 12 months did you carry a gun on your person for protection against crime?”

Those responding “in vehicle” or “both” were asked,

“About how many days in the past year did you carry a gun in a motor vehicle for protection against crime?”

A simple question about concealed carry permits would be very interesting:

“Do you have a concealed carry permit?”

Also a simple question about people’s use of guns for self-defense (“defensive gun use” or DGU):

“Have you ever used your gun for self-defense against another person?”

Followed by,

“Did you fire the gun?”

Or combined,

“Have you ever used your gun for self-defense against another person, whether you fired the gun or not?”

How often people shoot their guns can be a measure of how central guns are to their lives and their connection to gun culture:

“How often would you say you shoot guns?”

Other measures of involvement in gun culture could be:

  • Consumption of gun-related new media: blogs, podcasts, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds
  • Web 2.0/3.0 participation in on-line gun forums, Tweeting about guns, etc.
  • Consumption of gun-related old media: magazines, radio programs (“Tom Gresham’s Gun Talk”), and TV programs (Outdoor Channel and Sportsmans Channel, especially).
  • Participation in shooting matches (IDPA, USPSA, 3-Gun, precision rifle, target, skeet, trap, sporting clays)
  • Recreational shooting or “plinking”
  • Shooting range or gun club membership
  • Attending gun shows
  • Other gun related clubs like collector’s associations
  • Participation in training or informational classes
  • Hunting
  • Political activism







  1. My question is how to get valid answers to these questions from a random person when asked by a stranger whose motives are not know to the individual.


    • I think that is a good and fair question given my series of posts on underreporting. My understanding is that this is based on an existing panel as opposed to a random sample. That introduces other challenges but the one you suggest should not be one in this case.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’m really late to the game here, but I can offer one solution social scientists use.

      Assuming this is a phone survey, and assuming that firearm ownership would be something people might lie to the researcher asks the subject to flip a coin. The coin comes up heads or tails, but it’s obvious to both parties that the subject knows the result of the coin flip but the researcher does not.

      Researcher: “If you got heads, answer this question honestly. If you got tails, answer ‘yes.’ Do you own firearms?”

      The subject answers no if she doesn’t have firearms and got heads. No problem there.

      The subject answers yes if she doesn’t have firearms and got tails. She feels uncomfortable saying she has firearms, but she knows the researcher knows there’s a 50% chance she’s not telling the truth, so she feels shielded enough to answer.

      If she does have firearms, she answers yes, knowing again that the researcher knows there’s a 50% chance she’s only saying so because of the coin flip.

      So that’s one way social scientists can ask embarrassing or invasive questions and get accurate results across the group.


      • I am afraid I do not follow this. If the person gets heads, they are told to answer honestly – which is the basic expectation of survey research. So, some will tell the truth and some will lie, we just don’t know how many will lie – which is the current situation with survey research on guns.

        If the person gets tails, they answer yes regardless of what the underlying reality is. So we now have confounded the situation, it seems to me, because half of the sample as answered yes but we don’t know what percentage of those actually own guns.

        So, I am either extremely dense or you are pulling my leg.


  2. Response issues (lies, exaggeration, telescoping of time), as discussed above, are a problem but you have already addressed that.

    Might also ask this: “If you have answered yes to the DGU question, was this incident reported to the police?”

    Hemenway argues that high DGU estimates are overinflated or include criminal incidents as well as good guys with guns. Seems we are shooting in the dark on this and we need good data.

    Liked by 2 people

      • NCVS numbers are on the low end of DGU estimates. Different collection methods than some of the other methods, like Kleck’s. Not better, different. All have strengths and weaknesses.

        Hemenway does a -lot- of referencing his own previous work (if he cites a study that doesn’t have his name listed first or second, check who the “et al’s” are, I once found him to be a contributor in all but one study out of a list of a half-dozen being used to support a paper he wrote). For instance, in his studies that use state gun ownership estimates he will reference a “reliable estimating process.” That process comes from a paper he did using, in large part, gun suicides as a proxy for calculating that estimated state gun ownership.

        Kellerman 2.0

        Liked by 1 person

      • I actually don’t even talk directly in class about estimates of the number of DGUs because there is such great variation and no agreement on what counts or how to count them. So, it’s definitely more than the NCVS says and probably less than 2.5 million a year. Whatever the number, for the people who find themselves in a defensive gun use situation, that one instance matters a whole lot.

        Liked by 1 person

      • One of my regular reads, Stephen Wenger’s “Defensive Use of Firearms” (link below) constantly notes that basing all of our “pro-gun” arguments on crime rates and other statistics is problematic as changes in them can undercut our actual point about the right to self-defense, which is a philosophical argument.

        The same can be said about putting too much emphasis on how “practical” gun ownership for self-defense is based on the number of times people successfully use them. Even if every self-defense attempt failed every time, or it rarely happened, as you note, the Right would remain.

        Defensive Use of Firearms – get daily emails on National, and State and Local news and legal updates and an email of DGU’s in the news.


      • One might ask a couple questions relevant to GC 2.0. One, has the individual researched what is known about the frequency and effectiveness of carrying for DGU, other than what is sometimes offered superficially by advocates? Two, if one carries for self-defense, have you taken a self defense class up to an including something like a Mas Ayoob class?

        Its one thing to say that carrying arms for self defense is philosophically justified. Quite another to be competent to do so. I can buy a guitar but unless I learn to play….

        Liked by 1 person

      • Khal,

        I agree that training is a good thing, and should be sought, but we do have -some- evidence on whether it is “necessary” (as opposed to desirable) for effective self-defense.

        I’m sure you know all this. Rates of revocation of permits, for all reasons, not just criminal misuse (including accidents), are incredibly low across all states that track the data. Also, there is no documented difference I can find in accident rates or misuse by otherwise non-prohibited carriers between high, medium, and low training states.

        So, as far as “public safety” goes, lack of formal training doesn’t seem to be a huge risk.

        More relevantly, whatever the count of DGU’s may be, all sources seem to agree that most don’t involve actually firing the gun. And, anecdotally anyway, there are uses that did involve firing by the untrained that also seemed successful with no harm done to innocents.

        The guitar analogy might be a better fit if you could take your untrained guitar up on stage at an open mike and simply sit there for a few minutes (without your name being John Cage) and still “succeed” i.e. get applause and an invitation to come back.

        Obviously, training is good and more training is better. The philosophical problem lies in training not being free, thus, if mandatory, restricting the exercise of a fundamental right to those able to afford it. Particularly absent any significant evidence of overwhelming social costs in -not- requiring it.


      • I am not in favor of mandatory training beyond something like what we have for a CHL in New Mexico–fifteen hours going over gun law, self defense law, methods of safe and effective CC, CC mistakes, and ensuring that in order to get a CHL you know the muzzle from the breech and can hit an easy target (75% of 25 rds inside a 12″ x 18″ blank target at 3 (15 rds) and 7 (10 rds) yards). Now to make it more realistic, that target should be on a wire and running towards you. But any training has to be affordable. If I was writing law I would perhaps make it free or give a tax credit.

        Also, my point is not that training makes you a more law abiding citizen (indeed, revocation or crime rates of CHL holders are vanishingly low) but that if and when the SHTF in a fast moving self defense situation one is not fumbling around. Sure, if I have all the time in the world while my dog is barking and someone is prying at the door, then training is not a big issue. Brandishing the old 870 would probably be more than enough. But I am sure there are times when having body memory of competently handling a firearm is pretty important.

        I’m no expert. I only had one actual potential SDU situation and I never even unsnapped my holster. I spent several minutes talking someone out of assaulting me and ate a little crow just to talk him down. But I had five years of training as a university security officer under my belt (that’s how I worked my way through undergrad school) and that was far from the first time I had to discuss the finer points of life with a threatening stranger. So any conflict resolution training I had was on the job training.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Given the spread of Con Carry, might be good to clarify the “carry permit” question to include, “…if one is required for legal carry in your area…”

    I’m always a bit leery of any questions that require an understanding of gun laws without either first providing what the law actually is, or asking a follow-up of what the respondent -thinks- it is. Too many people, even “pro-gun” types, seem to have little idea what current Federal and their state laws actually are. Too much social media/ gunshop commando/ignorant reporters nonsense floating around.

    In that same flavor, it is wise to not use jargon but give a quick, detailed definition of terms, such as CC, OC, and even the varieties of permits and licenses being discussed. Can’t meaningfully exchange information unless all parties agree on common definitions of terms.


    • A good point, but I wonder if someone who has gone through the process of getting a concealed carry permit wouldn’t understand that they did that? If they have a permit, they know the law well enough to have gone through the process, right? Or perhaps I am misunderstanding your suggestion.


      • That was two different topics in one reply, sorry.

        For the first, if you asked if someone had a Permit or License to Carry (might be worth using both words as different states call them different things and gun people can be pedantic) in Alaska you wouldn’t get a lot of “yes’s” from people who also say they regularly carry, as it isn’t required. I, and many people I know, only get it for the NICs exemption and for reciprocity when travelling. I assume the situation is similar in other “Alaska-carry” (permit available but not required) Con Carry states.

        The “why” they got the permit, if not necessary, and, for all permittee’s, is reciprocity a major reason (if their permit is recognized elsewhere), and do they actually carry when travelling out of state, would be good follow-ups. Also do they have a resident or out-of-state non-res permit and why did they choose that option as an alternative, or in addition, to their home state permit.

        The second part, about laws, is more a result of seeing polls that ask general questions such as, for instance, “Do you support expanded background checks?”, then have the interviewer explain current BGC law and ask again if further checks are needed, and seeing how the answers change.

        There are a lot of people who don’t really “get” the specifics of given laws. They operate with a general, often off-kilter, understanding based on hearsay and bad reporting of what the laws that contrain their actions actually say.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I suspect if someone has a concealable handgun, they have already (or should have) researched the laws in their location. Too much variation. Last thing one would want to do is be “New Jerseyed”.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I would suspect (and expect) that too. But have you ever, for example, read the comments section of your paper on crime stories? The number of people who start off with “That’s why I carry my…” and then proceed to essentially hand the prosecution their case if they ever got into a defensive shooting are legion. And that even among self-proclaimed permit holders.

        One of my mottoes is “never bet against stupid.”

        But, fortunately, the worst cases situations don’t seem to arise that often.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Or, speaking of shooting one’s case in the foot, how about this one:

        Tuesday, February 15, 2011

        Officer Said His Job Is ‘Human Waste Disposal’

        By Jeff Proctor
        Copyright © 2011 Albuquerque Journal
        Journal Staff Writer
        An Albuquerque gang unit officer who shot and killed a suspect after a traffic stop last week had listed “human waste disposal” as his occupation on his Facebook page — drawing sharp criticism from the city’s top cop. …

        Liked by 1 person

  4. The problem I see with a lot of the training out there is the same as the difference in learning guitar from a person and learning by playing Guitar Hero. Hickok45 has a great video up where he takes an air soft pistol that looks just like a 92FS with the little orange cap off. He puts a stick down the ‘barrel’ and talks about muzzle control and sweeping. IMHO a video and demonstration like that would work wonders with basic training.

    Glad to see you are giving impute on the questions on the survey. Your writings here tell me it will be reasonable and on point. I had two classes in statistics many years ago and remember how important your questions could be.

    Keep your powder dry and your faith in God.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’d want to ask “How many guns do you see yourself owning?” and/or “How many firearms do you want to own?”

    One of the things about the “how many guns” question and the analyses of gun owners is they are subtly bonded to the present and its restrictions. How many of the people who own one gun at the time of survey are the (numerous) “I own one gun as insurance. and that will be all” vs “well I want to have a working battery of [x] guns” vs “I’m just getting into collecting and want a complete series of [blank] firearms and that’ll be about [x] guns”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. “Are you planning to get a firearm for protection against crime anytime in the next 12 months?”
    This needs to be 2 questions. What about a person who plans to buy a firearm to learn to hunt?
    “Have you ever used your gun for self-defense against another person?”
    Not all DGUs are against people. This excludes defense against wild animal attack, the #1 reason many hikers, campers, and people who live in areas with animals carry.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Scholars and journalists alike have been mostly interested in self-defense ownership and use of guns, and you are correct that the defensive uses are typically limited to defense against other human beings. Rightly or wrongly.

      Liked by 1 person

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