Exploring America’s Complex Relationship with Guns (Pew Research Center), Part 2 – Getting Into Guns

Continuing my series of looks at the Pew Research Center report, America’s Complex Relationship With Guns, an important question alongside the issue of the reason(s) people own guns is when and how people got into guns.

I am particularly interested in this question because of how late I got into guns myself, but it is of general interest in assessing the rise of Gun Culture 2.0.

The Gun Culture 2.0 hypothesis suggests an important driver of gun owning today is people who were not raised with guns. So, I suggested questions along these lines to the Pew Research Center.

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

Although Pew did not ask what motivated people to acquire their first gun, they did ask, “At what age did you first get your OWN gun.” For those who say they currently or have ever owned a gun, the average age is 22, which I find to be fairly young.

Screen cap of Pew Research Center report, p. 25. Available at http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2017/06/06151541/Guns-Report-FOR-WEBSITE-PDF-6-21.pdf

Broken down by gender, Pew finds that men acquire their first gun at age 19 on average, and women at age 27 on average. The dynamics of socialization into guns continues to differ considerably for men and women.

Looking outside the main report, we see that 37 percent of those who currently or have ever owned guns first got their OWN gun when they were under 18 years of age.

Screen cap of Pew Research Center topline report, p. 19. Available at http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2017/06/21162454/W25-W26-combined-topline-chkd-for-release.pdf

When Pew releases the full dataset, it will be interesting to see the gender breakdown of those 37% as well as what their current age is. Do they tend on average to be older men? If not, who are they?

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

Here I got what I asked for. Pew asked if guns were in respondents’ childhood homes. Nearly half of respondents (48%) report growing up in households with guns.

Screen cap of Pew Research Center report, p. 23. Available at http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2017/06/06151541/Guns-Report-FOR-WEBSITE-PDF-6-21.pdf

According to the Pew report, “About four-in-ten who grew up in a gun-owning household say they currently own a gun (42%), compared with 19% of those who didn’t grow up with guns in their household” (p. 23).

Although many will be interested in the apostates who grew up with guns but don’t currently own one, I am interested in the 19% of current gun owners who are converts (like myself). Who are they and why did they get into guns?

Pew also asked, “Just your best guess, at what age did you FIRST fire a gun, whether you owned it or not.” 63% of respondents answered that they were under 18 years of age when the first shot a gun. Only 3 percent of respondents were like me and were older than 40.

Screen cap of Pew Research Center topline report, p. 11. Available at http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2017/06/21162454/W25-W26-combined-topline-chkd-for-release.pdf

The overall average age is not reported, but according to Pew, “Whether they have or have not personally owned a gun, the average age at which those who grew up with guns in the household say they first fired a gun is 14 years, compared with 20 years among those who didn’t grow up in a gun-owning household” (p. 27).

I find the average age of first shooting a gun for those raised without guns to be surprisingly low, clearly reflecting my own personal experience of growing up in a non-gun-owning household and totally outside of gun culture generally.

*Have you ever shot a gun?

A question I did not think of asking, but which in retrospect is a really interesting question to ask is: “Regardless of whether or not you own a gun, have you ever fired a gun?”

Nearly three-quarters of respondents (72%) said YES. As someone who never even had an opportunity to fire a gun until I was over 40, I find it remarkable how common the experience of using firearms is in the United States. If this estimate is accurate, then nearly 180 million adults in America a fired a gun (72% of 250 million US population over 18). Even plus or minus 5%, that is alot of people.

Screen cap of Pew Research Center report, p. 26. Available at http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2017/06/06151541/Guns-Report-FOR-WEBSITE-PDF-6-21.pdf

Although it was a revelation to me, my fellow gun researcher Jennifer Carlson pointed out to me that this question has been asked in previous polls by the Gallup Organization.

Screen cap from http://www.gallup.com/poll/1645/guns.aspx

At +/-3%, we could be seeing no substantial change over time, or perhaps there was a real decline in exposure to guns during the height of the anti-gun years in America (marked by the 10 years of the “assault weapons ban” from 1994 to 2004) with a real rebound since then?

Wherever the reality lies, these results remind me that the Gun Culture 2.0 thesis does not require the size of American gun culture to be growing. Rather, the thesis suggests that the core of American gun culture is changing, and attempts to describe and understand that change.


  1. On the “ever fired a gun” question. Interesting follow-ups would be at what age, and where / with whom.

    I grew up knowing my father had hunted before I was born, but thought that we had no guns in the house. Turns out my mom had my dad secure them away to avoid temptation or something. She is not “anti-gun” per se, but only saw the negative possibilities with kids and guns in the same house. I frequently point out to her how well that plan worked out. 😉

    Anyway, we shot .22 rifles at 6 or 7 in Cub Scouts with my dad and the other dads “range officer-ing” for the merit badge, and then also just on father/son range trips, and at the Summer Bible Camp I went to every year for years.

    I suppose there might be many people who didn’t grow up in houses with guns but shot a gun at a camp (still fairly common I would think, even in the Northeast), or with a family friend, but who did not have the family history to ever own one themselves when they came of age. It would have been part of their experience, but not part of their lifestyle.


  2. My father hunted and both parents were law enforcement growing up. First firing was when I was young. Grew up knowing gun safety.


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