According to a recent survey by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, gun ownership in the United States has fallen by almost 20 percent since the 1970s. A report by the General Social Survey (GSS) found that around 32 percent of Americans either own a firearm or have one in their household in 2014, compared to the nearly 50 percent in 1973.
But is gun ownership really on a downward trend? The release of the report was quickly met by skepticism, especially by gun rights supporters who pointed out that GSS is sponsored in part by anti-gun organizations, which may cast some doubt on the survey. Author and pro-gun advocate John Lott also wrote in an opinion piece on Fox News that GSS director Tom Smith previously supported gun control measures. On the opposite side, gun control advocates warmly supported the report and made mention of the GSS’ reputation as one of the best sources of data on societal trends.
That said, the recent report by GSS has been both contradicted and supported by other survey firms. According to Gallup, gun ownership in America has actually remained relatively stable, save for a big increase in the early 1990s and the resulting slump in the early 2000s. The difference between today and 43 years ago in the number of gun owners is almost negligible—42 percent in 2014 as compared to 43 percent in 1972. Going further back, Gallup reported that 49 percent of American households claimed to own a gun in 1960. The Pew Research Center, on the other hand, does support GSS by reporting similar numbers, lending to the speculation by many that while guns are still selling at a brisk pace, it may be that more guns belong to fewer people.
Which study is to be believed? The federal government does not keep a census of gun owners, so the only data available is compiled by independent firms and the FBI’s background check report, which only records requests for background checks.
While these surveys are important in gauging public opinion, some say that there are many factors impacting their accuracy. Steve Sanetti, president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), wrote that how survey participants are polled—whether in-person or anonymously through the phone—can have a major effect on the results.
“The GSS finds that 32 percent of Americans own firearms or live with someone who owns one, a decrease when compared to GSS ownership rates from the 1970s and 1980s. But who would argue that these are very different times? In this era of government mistrust and information breaches, would you tell a stranger whether you own firearms or not—or freely offer other personal or family information you deem private?” Sanetti wrote.
Criminologist Gary Kleck also previously said that these kinds of surveys could be “hit-or-miss.” He noted that the Gallup survey, which was based on anonymous telephone calls, resulted in more participants answering that they owned a firearm.
Additionally, studies commissioned by the NSSF have found that the number of new gun owners is on the rise, and when taken with the FBI’s report of increasing background checks and a Pew survey that found American approval of gun rights at its highest in years, many speculate that gun ownership is actually increasing.
“Gun ownership declining?” asked Sanetti. “Don’t believe it.”
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.