Has the Rate of Gun Ownership in American Homes Really Decreased This Dramatically?

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As the debate over gun rights continues in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, there’s some interesting — and dueling — research emerging about Americans and firearms. According to a report in the New York Times, gun ownership in U.S. homes has allegedly declined dramatically over the past four decades. 

The 40-year decrease was found in the General Social Survey (GSS), a research initiative that is conducted every two years in an effort to study and gauge basic trends among the American populace (NORC, a research organization at the University of Chicago, is responsible for implementing the survey). The latest results found a downward trend in gun ownership since the late 1970s.

In was in the 1970s that 50 percent of the population, on average, reported having a gun in their household. This proportion dropped to 49 percent in the 1980s. But by the 1990s, it fell more dramatically to 43 percent, dipping even lower to 35 percent in the 2000s, the Times reports. In 2012, the rate was 34 percent, showcasing a steep decline when looking back just a few decades.

In addition to this purported drop, surprising dips in home firearms possession occurred in the South and in Western mountain states. These declines are certainly noteworthy, but so is the fact that household gun ownership appears to be down in cohorts across the board. Whether talking about cities, suburbs, rural areas or homes with or without children — the rate, at least according to the GSS, has decreased.

The Times breaks down some of the most surprising demographic issues:

Gun ownership in both the South and the mountain region, which includes states like Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming, dropped to less than 40 percent of households this decade, down from 65 percent in the 1970s. The Northeast, where the household ownership rate is lowest, changed the least, at 22 percent this decade, compared with 29 percent in the 1970s.

Age groups presented another twist. While household ownership of guns among elderly Americans remained virtually unchanged from the 1970s to this decade at about 43 percent, ownership among young Americans plummeted. Household gun ownership among Americans under the age of 30 fell to 23 percent this decade from 47 percent in the 1970s. The survey showed a similar decline for Americans ages 30 to 44.

As for politics, the survey showed a steep drop in household gun ownership among Democrats and independents, and a very slight decline among Republicans. But the new data suggest a reversal among Republicans, with 51 percent since 2008 saying they have a gun in their home, up from 47 percent in surveys taken from 2000 through 2006. This leaves the Republican rate a bit below where it was in the 1970s, while ownership for Democrats is nearly half of what it was in that decade.

Has the Rate of Gun Ownership in American Homes Really Decreased This Dramatically?

This February 4, 2013 photo illustration in Manassas, Virginia, shows a Remington 20-gauge semi-automatic shotgun, a Colt AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, a Colt .45 semi-auto handgun, a Walther PK380 semi-auto handgun and various ammunition clips with a copy of the US Constitution on top of the American flag. Credit: AFP/Getty Images 

Of course, this decrease may serve as a head-scratcher for anyone who’s seen media reports about Americans rushing out to purchase firearms as Congress debates enacting stricter gun control measures. After all, if more people are buying, shouldn’t the rate of gun ownership be increasing? Not so, explains Daniel Webster, director of John Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

“There are all these claims that gun ownership is going through the roof,” Webster told the Times. “But I suspect the increase in gun sales has been limited mostly to current gun owners. The most reputable surveys show a decline over time in the share of households with guns.”

Not everyone is buying into this notion, though. Tracking household gun ownership is difficult and few surveys have consistently done so. Considering that the GSS has tracked self-reported firearm ownership in homes since 1973, some herald the organization’s results as trustworthy.

NRA spokesperson Andrew Arulanandam, though, has his doubts about the purported decline.

“I’m sure there are a lot of people who would love to make the case that there are fewer gun owners in this country, but the stories we’ve been hearing and the data we’ve been seeing simply don’t support that,” he told the Times.

Arulanandam, among others, would also likely cite Gallup’s research, which seems, contrary to the GSS, to show an increase since 2009 when asking if respondents have a gun in their homes. While the survey group has observed some dips in ownership since 1991, 47 percent of Americans told the organization that they had a gun in their household in 2011.

Has the Rate of Gun Ownership in American Homes Really Decreased This Dramatically?

In this photo illustration a Rock River Arms AR-15 rifle is seen on December 18, 2012 in Miami, Florida. The weapon is similar in style to the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle that was used during a massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Firearm sales have surged recently as speculation of stricter gun laws and a re-instatement of the assault weapons ban following the mass shooting. Credit: Getty Images 

Gun expert John Lott addressed this issue and the Times report in a recent blog post, seemingly dismissing the GSS as being potentially biased against guns. He wrote:

The New York Times cites the General Social Survey to claim that the gun ownership rate is low and falling.  Here is something that I wrote in my 2003 book The Bias Against Guns.

A few years ago, while I was doing research at the University of Chicago, I had lunch with Tom Smith, who is the director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center (NORC). This private organization conducts many important national surveys for the government as well as other clients. During lunch Tom mentioned how important he thought the General Social Survey was. He felt the large drop in gun ownership implied by his survey would “make it easier for politicians to do the right thing on guns” and pass more restrictive regulations.  His surveys have traditionally shown one of the lowest gun ownership rates among any of the surveys: for example, almost 20 percentage points lower than recent polling by John Zogby. . . .Tom Smith is still the director of the GSS.  It is interesting to note that both the JAMA study this week as well as Tom Smith have received funding from the Joyce Foundation.

The Joyce Foundation embraces gun control initiatives, as implied by Lott’s comments.

Perhaps differences in the question being asked by Gallup and the GSS could be at the root of the statistical disagreement. While the GSS asked 2,000 respondents the gun question between March and September 2012 (margin of sampling error plus or minus three percentage points), Gallup surveyed 1,005 people in October 2011 (margin of sampling error plus or minus four percentage points).

Here’s the GSS question, based on the 2010 survey, as the 2012 version is not yet available online: “Do you happen to have in your home (IF HOUSE: or garage) any guns or revolvers?” The Gallup version is a bit more expansive, also asking if guns are present inside one’s vehicle. It reads, “Do you have a gun in your home? (If no: Do you have a gun anywhere else on your property, such as in your garage, barn, shed, or in your car or truck?).

While these slight differences may impact results, others who support the GSS’s findings maintain that urbanization and changing demographics (increasing numbers of Hispanics and women-headed households — both of which are less likely to own guns) is helping fuel the decrease.

What do you think? You can read the Times’ analysis and Gallup’s latest gun poll and decide for yourself.