My involvement in gun culture has profoundly shifted my perspective on guns and gun owners.
Several years into my transition to gun owner and scholar, I was a guest on my fellow North Carolinian Sean Sorrentino’s GunBlog VarietyCast (since retired). Sean and I spoke about my background and project, and problems with academics’ dominant approaches to studying guns. When he asked me at the end for my big takeaway, I said something that turned out to be more significant than I expected.
The thing that has surprised me most about getting into gun culture these past 6 or 7 years is that gun owners are people, too. If you just read the scholarly literature on guns, you would not know that.
I have expressed this view in my own scholarly publications on guns, and over the years I have further refined this perspective into a sort of motto:
Guns are normal, and normal people use guns.
The problem is normality is not newsworthy. It is not of concern to social scientists. It is even hard for me at times to write in an interesting way about something that is unremarkable. And yet it is my dominant experience of guns and gun owners.
The reality that guns are a perfectly normal part of life for a large part of the U.S. population can be seen in a comprehensive survey released by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center in 2017.
To begin with, a majority of the population currently lives with a gun in their house or has in the past, and a sizeable minority – what I call the “gun curious” – have thought about or are actively considering acquiring a gun.
Only about one-third of Americans say they do not and will never own guns, but we have seen during the Great Gun Buying Spree of 2020+ that even those “No-Nevers” can change their minds.
Pew finds a remarkable 7 out of 10 American adults have actually fired a gun at some point in their lives—that is nearly 180 million people. Viewed the other way around: A minority of American adults has never shot a gun.
No one knows what proportion of the U.S. population actually owns guns. As with religion, the federal government does not keep official records or collect statistics on gun ownership. So, we depend on surveys conducted by organizations like Gallup, the Pew Research Center, National Opinion Research Center, and others. These surveys not only produce different estimates, but they also underestimate gun ownership rates. My educated guess is that 40% of adults, more than 90 million civilians, own the 400+ million guns in the US.
On any given day, the vast majority of America’s tens of millions of gun owners will not have any negative outcomes associated with their hundreds of millions of guns. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, in 2018 there were 13,958 homicides using firearms. Even using the faulty assumption that a different person committed every homicide using a different gun, a mere 0.015% of gun-owners and 0.0035% of guns are involved in firearms homicides annually.
Looked at the other way around, at least 99.985% of gun owners and 99.996% of guns are NOT involved in homicide in any given year.
Even if we add suicides (24,432 in 2018), accidental deaths (438 in 2018), and non-fatal firearms injuries (84,776 in 2017), only 0.132% of gun owners and 0.031% of guns at most are “responsible.”
At least 99.87% of gun owners and 99.969% of guns are NOT associated with any of these negative outcomes. (Corrected, H/T Tim)
Without trivializing the direct and indirect effects of serious mistakes and negative outcomes with firearms, the perspective that guns are normal inverts the typical questions social scientists ask about guns: As dangerous as guns are, why are there so FEW negative outcomes with guns in general?