This article is part of a series on Guns in America that explores the use of firearms in our country and the debate over gun control. This is an editorially independent series sponsored by Tactical Firearms Training Secrets.
Measuring gun ownership in America is a monumentally difficult task — one that has led to intense debate and a wide range of numbers that cannot be definitively pinned down.
As TheBlaze has highlighted in the past, polling firms have reached divergent results when measuring the proportion of U.S. homes that have a gun. While some cite stability over time, others claim that ownership, as a whole, has significantly decreased.
To summarize the overall discrepancies: Gallup, a respected research organization, has found varying levels of gun ownership, but has reported that the proportion of individuals reporting a gun in their home remains relatively high. In 2012, that proportion was found to be 43 percent.
But the General Social Survey (GSS), another respected organization that measures Americans’ views on a plethora of issues, has observed a very different trend. Over the past few decades, the GSS has reported a decline in those individuals claiming to have guns and firearms in their homes. GSS found that only 34 percent of Americans reported guns in their home last year.
Here’s how the Pew Research Center describes this GSS phenomenon:
When the GSS first asked about gun ownership in 1973, 49% reported having a gun or revolver in their home or garage. In 2012, 34% said they had a gun in their home or garage. When the survey first asked about personal gun ownership in 1980, 29% said a gun in their home personally belonged to them. This stands at 22% in the 2012 GSS survey.
Gallup sees no such overarching trend.
WHAT’S DRIVING STATISTICAL DIFFERENCES IN GUN OWNERSHIP?
Naturally, one wonders what could be driving these divergent findings. After all, Gallup, the GSS and other respected firms use scientific survey design and take numerous precautions to ensure that studies are representative of the overall population. Meaning: Regardless of who’s conducting each poll, the results should be reflective of one another and streamlined.
Obviously, this isn’t happening, leading to questions surrounding why disparities exist. When it comes to polling, no matter now much effort is put into the design process, there are some elements that could potentially impact results. This is specifically true for controversial issues like gun rights and firearms control. From question wording to the mode used to collect data, there is much to consider.
TheBlaze interviewed Frank Newport, editor-in-chief at Gallup, and Tom Smith, head of the GSS, to speak further about these intricacies and to examine, in-depth, what may be driving the difference between their survey results.
When asked why he believes there’s such a wide disparity between gun ownership proportions, Newport laid out some of the potential root causes. To begin, he said that question wording is one of the prime potential catalysts of differing results.
DIFFERENCES IN QUESTION WORDING
“Our basic question is do you have a gun in your home and if you don’t have a gun in their home we follow up and ask do you have a gun on your property,” Newport explained.
In the past, TheBlaze has analyzed the differences between the two firms’ presentation of this question. The GSS question, based on the 2010 survey (the question wording has not changed in decades), reads, “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 in a follow-up question 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?). Newport questioned the inclusion of “revolver” in the GSS study, wondering – not charging, per se – if its inclusion skews results in a downward fashion.
Considering that “revolver” is not necessarily the most contemporary term, the word does spark questions. Among them: Is it possible that leaving the respondent with “revolver” as the last word being heard in the question leads them away from considering including rifles and other firearms?
That said, the same question asks more generally about guns, thus the mere mention should encompass any weapon falling under this category. Smith told TheBlaze that the wording has been consistent since 1973. And for those answering affirmatively, two follow-up questions are then asked about the kind of gun that respondents have in their homes and whether the weapons belong specifically to them.
SURVEY AND SOCIAL CONTEXT OF THE GUN OWNERSHIP QUESTION
The second issue that has the potential to skew data, Newport contends, is question context. He noted that the placement of a question within a survey can have an impact on results, specifically considering which questions are asked before gun ownership. Depending on the content of these inquiries, results for subsequent questions could be impacted.
As for the context of the Gallup question — an inquiry the firm has been making since 1959 — Newport claims that his organization has been pretty consistent. While some changes in context have emerged over time, such rearranging hasn’t been rampant.
“We’ve generally asked it the same way,” he said of the gun-ownership question. “Same context, same set of questions came before it, same time of year.”
As for the results, Newport says that they have moved around somewhat, something he partially attributes to margin of error.
In speaking with TheBlaze about GSS data, Smith said that his team is generally very consistent in this area as well, unlike other polling competitors.
“Our context is very stable…ours is a very long survey – an hour and a half — and the immediate context is very stable, but in most years [the] prior question has changed,” he said.
Newport also outlined another element that likely impacts results: The sociopolitical environment – something that is regularly changing and evolving based on local, national and global events.
If there’s more discussion about guns, for instance, it’s possible that the media coverage and political commentary could hold sway over poll results. Consider, for instance, the widespread chatter about gun control that emerged following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Dec. 2012. There’s no telling the impact that the fallout of such a scenario could have on respondents.
THE MODE OF GUN OWNERSHIP DATA COLLECTION
Another element worth considering when measuring firearms or any other controversial indicator is the mode, or the method through which data are collected. While making no definitive statements surrounding which firm has the most accurate data collection method, Newport highlighted that mode effect could also potentially play a role in the differences observed in guns ownership statistics.
“There’s also what we call a mode effect and I believe…most of the GSS survey is done in person and, of course, our survey and everyone else’s are done on the phone,” he told TheBlaze. “If someone’s there in your living room asking [you questions] with a clip board…there could be a difference.”
Newport was clear that he wasn’t claiming a definite impact on results if and when someone collects data inside the home versus via telephone, however he did raise the mode as a possible explanatory factor. He said that testing this dynamic this would be necessary in order to make more informed and definitive decisions on the matter.
As for Smith, he confirmed that the GSS’s methodology and general mode of communication with respondents is in person. While the vast majority of studies are conducted in peoples’ homes, some individuals are reached outside of their houses (traveling salesmen and others who are regularly on the road). And another small portion of the sample is reached via phone. Overall, these outliers account for five to 10 percent of the sample, Smith told TheBlaze.
“Mode of communication is a factor although it’s a complex thing. It’s something that can vary,” he said. “It tends to be much more variable specific. [In] the vast majority [of scenarios]…you do get comparable results.”
Smith did note, though, that some complex questioning actually lends itself to in-person over telephone response-gathering. If one is collecting data about income, for instance, having show-cards and placards that show income intervals visually can be of assistance in getting the proper information.
Considering the impact of social and political discussion and the aura that accompanies in-person interviews (a more personal face-to-face engagement), one could reasonably assert that, depending on the issue, respondents could be intimidated or shy away from affirmatively answering something that they fear might make them look insensitive.
For example: Self-reporting ownership of an AR-15, especially in light of pressures following Sandy Hook, could, theoretically, be impacted by this dynamic.
The Gallup official was candid about the fact that the firm’s gun ownership numbers have changed from year to year, but in a separate interview Smith charged that these proportions may fluctuating a bit too much.
“I simply know that [Gallup] show[s] higher numbers than us and less of a decline over time,” the GSS director told TheBlaze. “When I did look at them…the Gallup numbers seem to be bouncing around more than they should.”
Smith said that some proportional changes are to be expected, but that the transition should be more slowly from year-to-year than what’s being observed by Gallup.
“In reality, this has to be a very stable behavior — just like American households who have a car or any other stable demographic,” he continued.
THE CHALLENGES OF MEASURING GUNS AND GUN OWNERSHIP
As for the debate over whose proportions are correct, Newport also pointed TheBlaze to ABC/Washington Post data that is closer to Gallup’s findings that the GSS’s. Asking the question, “Do you or does anyone in your house own a gun, or not?,” the proportions are fascinating. In March, 42 percent of respondents answered affirmatively and 57 percent said “no.” These proportions, too, have bounced around quite a bit.
In the end, though, it seems the GSS has a corroborating polling firm as well, with the Pew Research Center — an equally prominent group — noting that its own findings substantiate the GSS. In a recent analysis, Pew writes:
The Pew Research Center has tracked gun ownership since 1993, and our surveys largely confirm the General Social Survey trend. In our December 1993 survey, 45% reported having a gun in their household; in early 1994, the GSS found 44% saying they had a gun in their home. A January 2013 Pew Research Center survey found 33% saying they had a gun, rifle or pistol in their home, as did 34% in the 2012 wave of the General Social Survey.
In the Pew Research Center survey conducted Feb. 13-18, 37% of adults reported having a gun in their household: 24% say they personally own a gun, and 13% say the gun or guns in their home are owned by someone else. These figures are not significantly different from the 2012 General Social Survey estimates that 34% of households have guns, and 22% of individuals own a gun.
Naturally, more needs to be done to explore what’s driving these proportional changes. It’s impossible to tell, based on the surface, why Gallup and ABC/Washington Post seem to agree with one another, while statistically disagreeing with the GSS and Pew. However, Newport plans to look deeper into the issue. He told TheBlaze that he’s interested in exploring question wording to see how it impacts results.
The significance of these numbers cannot be ignored. After all, both sides of the gun control debate rely upon ownership statistics to drive their points home. Getting the proportions right — or as correct as statistically and logistically possible — would be ideal for this very reason.
It’s obviously problematic if proponents or opponents are using incorrect numbers to drive home their ideals, so it’s best to ensure that all sides are arguing with the most up-to-date and correct proportions.
It will be fascinating to see how these gun ownership disparities are handled by all of the different parties.
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