Who are the Gun Owners Who Only Own Handguns?

For my Sociology of Guns class tomorrow, I am re-reading some reports on national surveys of firearms owners. I have written a number of times before about the statistics derived from these surveys and their problems.

At 22%, I believe the 2015 National Firearms Survey underestimates the actual rate of personal firearms ownership in the United States. Even still, there are still some interesting results from the survey related to Gun Culture 2.0.

Specifically, I examine here the results focusing on the demographics of those gun owners who only own handguns. As handguns are the primary self-defense firearm owned by Americans, those who own only handguns probably have both feet in Gun Culture 2.0.

Screen cap of https://www.rsfjournal.org/doi/full/10.7758/RSF.2017.3.5.02

In the National Firearms Survey, 63% of respondents said one reason they own firearms is for protection against people. (Another 20% gave protection against animals as a reason.) However, when the authors look at the type of firearms owned, those who own handguns stand out from those who own only long guns:

  • Handgun only (own >1): 83% give protection from people as a reason for ownership
  • Handgun only (own 1): 78%
  • Handgun and long gun: 72%
  • Long gun only (own 1): 36%
  • Long gun only (own >1): 27%

Gun owners overall tend to be from a particular demographic profile: more male, older, whiter, rural, and southern.

Handgun only gun owners, by contrast, tend to come from different demographic groups, as I have highlighted in the table from the report below.

Women are nearly twice as likely as men to own only handguns (42% to 22%), Blacks are more than twice as likely and Hispanics nearly twice as likely as whites to own only handguns (57% to 38% to 20%), and those who live in urban areas are more than twice as likely as rural folks to own only handguns (40% to 15%).

Other interesting findings are political liberals are nearly twice as likely as political conservatives to own only handguns (36% to 20%), and (not shown) those who did not grow up with a gun in the home are more than twice as likely as those who did to own only handguns (44% to 20%).

When I spoke with Karl Rehn on the Handgun World Podcast, I said that Gun Culture 2.0 has the potential to be more inclusive than Gun Culture 1.0 because, unlike hunting and traditional target/recreational shooting, self-defense is everyone’s concern.

Although the study is not without its flaws, the 2015 National Firearms Survey points to some of this diversification of gun ownership in Gun Culture 2.0.


  1. David, do you know if anyone has compiled a comparison of non-traditional handgun owners vs. gun incidents in the home? My hypothesis is these first timers might be at higher risk of both accidents and misuse as they typically are not part of a gun culture (either 1.0 or 2.0) that has a historically-acquired healthy respect for firearms.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Khal, the anti-gunners have tried to float the meme that “new gun-owners lead to more gun accidents” via statistically trashy studies like “Firearms and accidental deaths: Evidence from the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting” by Levine and McNight, published in Science last December.

      Don’t believe it. We have all been pleased to watch not just the incidence but the actual number of gun accidents decline in the US at the exact time that millions of new people were becoming gun owners. We also know that gun accidents, just like accidents in general, have been found to be much more common in the segment of our population who “were previously known to the police, had arrests for violence, had arrests involving alcohol, and crashes and traffic citations during the previous 3 years and during their lifetimes.”–Waller and Whorton, “Unintentional shootings, highway crashes and acts of violence—A behavior paradigm”, 1973.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I do not know of any data on this, though it may exist. My observation based on anecdotal news reports is that gun accidents at home often involve people for whom guns are too familiar. Grandma and grandpa who leave guns laying around because when they were kids they knew not to touch guns, and people who get lax with safety because they know guns so well, and people who drink and mess with their guns. I know newbies like me have to learn to handle guns safely as adults, bit many of us also approach guns as extremely dangerous because they are new to us. On a public range I am as afraid of the lax old gun people as the newbies.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I was wondering about those who buy a gun for self defense. Presumably, that means the gun is kept in a fully armed condition. If it is loaded and not secured, it is a target of opportunity for kids or as you say, drunks or visitors. The incidents I read about are the lady at Idaho National Lab who left a loaded handgun in her new purse (with the gun compartment in it) at WalMart and her two year old kid in the jump seat, next to the purse, blew her away. Or the lady with the gun under the driver seat and the kid in the back seat. Bang.


        Complacency is indeed an issue but I have a hard time with complacency when dealing with something meant to blow a large hole in me. I spent sixteen years doing the triple threat at my job, i.e., working with high voltage/high current/stored energy equipment, hazardous (including highly toxic Cat I) chemicals, and highly radioactive material. One cannot afford complacency and we develop some pretty strict protocols which if followed, help prevent accidents. I think what we lack is a good, comprehensive training plan with periodic review. Not as a government program to disarm us, but as a gun owner’s program to keep us from shooting ourselves in the foot.

        At home, unless there is a good reason to have a loaded gun, all guns are unloaded as soon as they enter the home. When pulling one out of the safe, they are immediately examined (while handled as though they might be loaded) to ensure they are actually unloaded. Etc.

        Liked by 1 person

    • The additional “gun incident in the home” number I’m interested in is “prohibited possessor” versus legal owner. If you combine “non-trad legal” with “shouldn’t have” you can probably make a compelling policy argument for basic gun safety as part of an public educational curriculum.

      The former may lack the connections to get the education themselves (may not even know they should), and the latter are unlikely to access it for themselves nor teach it to their children.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Firearms safety in the time of my parents (1950’s) was taught in school. It should be. I grew up as part of GC 1.0 so I learned early not to disrespect firearms. I keep my pistol loaded but then I now live single in a very rural area.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. You always need to take national surveys on gun ownership with a very large grain of salt.

    If someone asks me, “Do you own a gun?” My answer will be “No, of course not.”

    No good can come of answering in the positive.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I have seen negligent actions from both noobs and old hands. Familiarity does breed contempt. Cops have negligent – sometimes fatal – discharges. I grew up in a home divided.My father taught me to shoot in the shooting galleries in NY’s Times Square at seven and took me hunting at 15. There were guns in the home, including, when I was older, mine. My mother didn’t like them, but other than making her dislike known, took no action.

    My father often carried large sums of cash to pay of the crew of ships on which he sailed as the purser. He had a conditional permit and was armed when he carried out his duties. Ships are often berthed in less than safe areas, so being both armed and inconspicuous was a good idea. I grew up with that mindset coming from my male role model.

    When I was living – or staying – in homes with children, I secured my firearms. My EDC gun is not usually secured, since it is always within reach. There are no children in my home and that gun is *always* loaded. I have had exactly one negligent discharge in my over 50 years of handling firearms and it did not result in an injury or significant property damage. It was an unusual brain fade and involved a firearm I hadn’t touched in some time. It made me even more careful.


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