Question: Why do people own guns?
Surveys typically offer people several options to describe their motivations, usually including: hunting, collecting, recreation, and personal protection or self-defense. Over the past 20 years, self-defense has replaced hunting as the primary reason for gun ownership for Americans.
Some surveys allow people to list multiple reasons, for example the 2015 National Firearms Survey:
- 63% Protection against people
- 40% Hunting
- 34% Collecting
- 28% Sporting use
Similarly, a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center finds the following “major” reasons for gun ownership:
- 67% Protection
- 38% Hunting
- 30% Sport shooting
- 13% Collecting
- 8% Work
Some surveys force people to choose one reason as primary, such as a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center:
- 48% Protection
- 32% Hunting
- 7% Target/sport shooting
- 2% Constitutional right
- 2% Collecting
- 7% Other
According to the 2013 Pew report, the percentage answering protection was up from 26% in 1999, and the percentage answering hunting was down from 49% in 1999.
Question: What kind of guns do they own (especially for personal protection)?
Many surveys, including the General Social Survey, ask people what kinds of guns they own. These are usually divided up into handguns (pistols/revolvers) and long guns (shotguns/rifles).
I was recently given access to the pre-public release data from Wave 4 of the Baylor Religion Survey from 2014, which included questions about gun ownership. Although not perfect, the BRS question about gun ownership is unique in allowing people to specify whether they own a hand gun/revolver and/or a long gun, AND if they do, whether they own it for protection, recreation, or as a collector’s item.
Of respondents who report owning owning hand guns or long guns:
- 66.5% own both hand guns and long guns
- 19.7% own only hand guns
- 13.8% own only long guns
Of those who own hand guns (whether only or with long guns):
- 67.5% Protection
- 23.6% Recreation
- 9.0% Collector’s Item
Of those who own long guns (whether only or with hand guns):
- 27.5% Protection
- 58.4% Recreation
- 14.1% Collector’s Item
Although a significant minority of respondents own long guns for protection, hand guns are still more strongly associated with personal protection and long guns with recreational shooting (including, of course, hunting).
Over time, as American gun culture has shifted to a self-defense orientation, the proportion of the American gun stock that is composed of handguns has increased relative to long guns.
Question: How many people own AR-style or AK-style rifles?
That said, the most popular long gun in American society today (based on new sales) is not the shot gun or bolt action rifle but the magazine fed, semi-automatic rifle based on the AR platform, what the gun industry calls the “modern sporting rifle” and gun control advocates refer to as “assault rifles.”
To my knowledge, no one has ever asked in a survey question whether someone owns as AR-style or AK-style rifle, but gun industry sources like the National Shooting Sports Foundation estimate there to be anywhere from 5 to 10 million in circulation. (If anyone has a more solid statistic on this point, please let me know and I will update this page.)