In 2019, I presented my work on gun advertising at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in San Francisco. In the Q&A after, a man I had never met before asked me if my work on gun culture had lessons for improving the public debate over guns in America. I said that lawful, well-intentioned gun owners — that is, the overwhelming majority of gun owners — do not like being made to feel that violence and other negative outcomes involving guns are their fault, or to feel that gun ownership in and of itself is deviant behavior (e.g., “Why would ANYONE need to own a . . . ?”).
After the session, the man and his research associate introduced themselves to me and expressed appreciation for my work, saying it had informed theirs. It turns out that I had just met Michael Siegel and Claire Boine, researchers at the Boston University School of Public Health. Unbeknownst to me, they had received a large grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to study, in part, legal gun owners.
The first publication from that project came out in 2020: “The Meaning of Guns to Gun Owners in the US: The 2019 National Lawful Use of Guns Survey.”
As public health scholars, the underlying motivation for this research is to figure out how to get legal gun owners on board with “gun violence prevention” efforts. Still, the survey represents one of the few efforts to understand the lawful use of guns by legal gun owners — something I have been calling for since I began studying guns. For that reason, I assigned it in the module of my Sociology of Guns seminar this semester on “Who Owns How Many Guns and Why?”
Having now read the article (again, more closely than before), I have to say I am disappointed in the way the findings from the survey were presented. As with most public health research on guns, even this one required me to read beyond what is presented in the article to get a true picture of American gun owners and gun culture.
Without belaboring the point, let me just highlight a few choices the authors made in presenting the findings that seem purposely designed to downplay gun ownership and use.
In Table 2, the authors present descriptive statistics on how often gun owners engage in certain gun-related activities. In the survey, they have 5 response categories: (1) never, (2) a few times a year, (3) about once per month, (4) a few times per month, and (5) about every week or more. In the table, they give the percentage of respondents who answered 3, 4, or 5: monthly or more.
This produces what on the surface appears to be a relatively low level of gun-related activity. Indeed, among the authors’ major takeaways is: “A minority of gun owners in the sample (22.9%) reported taking part in any gun-related activity MORE THAN RARELY” (emphasis mine).
For example, only 1.6% of gun owners attend a gun show monthly or more often. Hmmmm. I don’t know what it looks like nationally, but where I live (in a mid-sized city in the South), the gun show only comes to town quarterly. So to go to a gun show once/month or more would be an extreme commitment.
Fortunately, the authors provide full appendices including the survey’s CODEBOOK which allows the persistent reader to look into the results more deeply. If we add those who attend gun shows “a few times a year” to those who attend monthly or more, the percentage increases from the reported 1.6% to 29.2% — a 1,725% increase, in fact.
Similar differences can be found when looking at the reported percentage of gun owners who go to the range monthly or more (13.9%) and those who go at least a few times a year (63.4%). Those who buy a gun to add to their firearms collection monthly or more (1.6%) and those who do so a least a few times a year (29.3%). And so on.
Not available in the supplementary materials is what percentage of gun owners report taking part in ANY gun-related activity at least a few times a year. But even this cursory scan of the codebook suggests at least half of gun owners do so, and more likely three-quarters, and most likely even more than that.
Thinking about the dramatic differences here also highlights a fairly large gap in the scale between “about once per month” (3) — so, 10-12 times per year? — and “a few times a year” (2) — so, 3-4 times per year? If people engage in these activities 5-9 times a year, which way do they round their activity in order to choose one of the response categories?
In any event, if I went to the gun range or hunted or went to gun shows or assembled my own firearm or bought a gun for my collection, etc. “a few times a year,” I would certainly not think of myself as engaging in that gun-related activity RARELY.
I honestly do not know whether these data were shaded intentionally to diminish the robustness of American gun culture or if the authors are simply too far outside it to know what constitutes a common vs. rare level of activity. Michael Siegel has been interviewed by B.J. Campbell on RecoilTV, which may provide further clues.