What if the New York Times Went to SHOT Show?

The New York Times sent Tiffany Hsu, “a media reporter for the business desk, focusing on advertising and marketing,” to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show in Las Vegas in January. She recently filed a story, Gunmakers Battle ‘Trump Slump’ With a Softer Sales Pitch,” about which I have just a couple of brief observations.

Screen cap of https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/23/business/media/guns-sales-advertising-strategy.html

First, Hsu focuses on how the “firearms industry is moving beyond macho marketing, testing a more inclusive strategy to counter sagging sales.” She offers some impressionistic observations based on interviews with people at the show. Impressionistic observations about advertising are good as far as they go, but they don’t go very far.

For example, there is a strong belief that gun culture has become more militarized in recent years, but my analysis of advertising in The American Rifleman over 100 years shows that association with the military has long been used to sell guns. (I thought I had posted about this previously, but didn’t so will follow-up on it a.s.a.p.)

The same may be true of the alleged “macho” marketing of guns. With an honors student right now, I am analyzing the portrayal of gender in advertising in The American Rifleman over the past 100 years. Preliminary data analysis reveals a complex pattern that goes well beyond “men strong, women weak.”

Screen cap of https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/23/business/media/guns-sales-advertising-strategy.html

My second comment concerns Hsu’s use of gun ownership statistics to downplay the importance of guns, gun owners, and gun culture. Even if we take the household gun ownership figure she cites from the Gallup Poll at face value — which we absolutely should not because gun ownership statistics underestimate actual gun ownership — a significant proportion of households own guns.

At 40%, we are talking 51.4 MILLION households in the US with guns. So, the “glass” of gun ownership may be more than half empty, but it is a giant glass and there is still a tremendous amount in there.

My own estimate is (conservatively) that 44% to 50% of households in the US own guns, so 56.6 million to 64.3 million households. In other words, A LOT.

Screen cap of https://news.gallup.com/poll/1645/Guns.aspx

Hsu also emphasizes the LOWEST percentage of households report having guns IN THE LAST 15 YEARS. You can just feel her wanting to show how guns are waning in importance.

But what the data from Gallup show is considerable fluctuation in reported gun ownership from year to year. Are we to believe that actual rates of household gun ownership fluctuate that much from year to year? Absolutely not.

For one, you have this thing called the margin of error due to sampling. Gallup does not show the margin of error in this table, but it is probably 4%. So, based on probability theory, we are 95% confident that the point estimate is =/-4% of the actual value in the population. If that were shown in this chart, much of the fluctuation would disappear and we would see less dramatic change.

Secondly, you have the reality of “false negatives” in self-reports of household gun ownership. People who do have guns in their households but tell the surveyor they do not. Notice the dramatic decline in reported gun ownership from 1968 (when the Gun Control Act was passed) to 1983, rebounding during the Reagan-Bush years, then declining again from 1994 (Assault Weapons Ban enacted) to 1999 when the Clinton administration was again strongly regulating guns.

I definitely think there are some interesting observations in this story, but I had to work through a lot of the usual nonsense to get to them.


  1. On 13July1863, the New York Times defended their offices with Gatling guns during the Draft Riots which spanned three chaotic days.

    It would be interesting to see their take on this event, let alone actually talk to those of us who do own firearms but – as pointed out in the studies – will not acknowledge such information in any pills or surveys.

    Reporting from a bubble to those IN the bubble is part of the ongoing problem for either side… but moreso for those who have never sincerely asked or attempted to understand gun owners.

    As I have maintained previously, your writing and efforts show that there is hope – keep at it!


  2. David, an excellent opportunity to reach out to the media, assuming Hsu is interested in learning more about the firearms community, instead of her stereotypes of the gun community. In fact, I’ve noticed marketing to female shooters and potential shooters/hunters for most of my life, 63 years, but the focus on potential customers outside of the white male demographic has been accelerating for over two decades.


  3. Thanks David, critical, objective thinking is greatly appreciated. Journalism should be studied for its ever-increasing decline into the mud of personal feelings, emotion, and ill-informed opinions based loosely on poorly vetted sources. Who was that said “Figures lie and Liars figure.”?


  4. Looking at the sawtooth pattern in the poll graph, I would surmise that this is random error in the sampling which as you say, is consistent with several percent error. I think most major polling companies and Gallup included, usually cite their uncertainties. For one recent poll on American’s confidence in elections, for example,

    “Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Oct. 25-26, 2016, on the Gallup U.S. Daily survey, with a random sample of 1,011 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±6 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.”

    And then there is systematic error, which can occur in any measurement methodology. As you say, some folks might deny having guns just as some folks, if polled, might deny wanting to vote for a particular unsavory candidate. When I sampled rocks in Central Minnesota for my dissertation, all I could find were granites because the sedimentary rocks get eroded more easily. One would not, however, assume there are no sedimentary rocks in Minnesota.

    It all matters.


  5. I am shocked, shocked!, that people would lie to pollsters about their gun ownership. Next thing you know they will be lying to their physicians about whether they have a gun in the home.

    Not that *I* would do anything like that or even associate with anyone who did.


  6. If someone you don’t know asks you, “Do you own guns?” the only answer is “No, of course not.” And maybe even if some of the people you do know, just not very well asks you that, you should give the same answer.


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