Is gun ownership really down in America?


FILE — Feb. 6, 2015: A dealer arranges handguns in a display case in advance of a show at the Arkansas State Fairgrounds in Little Rock, Arkansas. (Danny Johnston/AP)

Is gun ownership falling? The answer is yes, at least if you believe a new General Social Survey (GSS) by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC). Supposedly, since the late 1970s, the percentage of homes with a gun has fallen from approximately 50 percent to 32 percent. ;”The number of Americans who live in a household with at least one gun is lower than it’s ever been,” reported Emily Swanson of the Associated Press. ;

Time magazine also points to a PEW Research survey ;that has done a couple much more limited surveys that suggest a similar drop in gun ownership over time.

But those claims are likely overblown.

We should be very careful of relying too heavily on polling to gauge the level of gun ownership. 

Surely, gun control advocates such as GSS director Tom Smith view this decline as a good thing. ;In a 2003 book of mine, I quoted Smith as saying that the large drop in gun ownership would “make it easier for politicians to do the right thing on guns” and pass more restrictive regulations. ;

Other gun control advocates have mentioned to me that they hope that if people believe fewer people own guns, that may cause others to rethink their decision to own one themselves. ; It is part of the reason they dramatically exaggerate the risks of having guns in the home.

The Associated Press and Time ignored other polls by Gallup and ABC News/Washington Post. ; These polls show that gun ownership rates have been flat over the same period. ;According to Gallup, household gun ownership has ranged from 51 percent in 1994 to 34 percent in 1999. In 2014, it was at 42 percent – comparable to the 43-45 percent figures during the 1970s.

A 2011 Gallup poll with the headline “Self-Reported Gun Ownership in U.S. Is Highest Since 1993” appears to have gotten no news coverage.

The ABC News/Washington Post poll shows an even more stable pattern, with household gun ownership between 44 and 46 percent in 1999. ; In 2013, the ownership rate was 43 percent. ;

There are other measures that suggest that we should be very careful of relying too heavily on polling to gauge the level of gun ownership. ; For example, the nationally number of concealed handgun permits has soared over the last decade: rising from about 2.7 million in 1999 to 4.6 million in 2007 to 11.1 million in 2014. ; The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) shows that the number of gun purchases has grown dramatically over time – doubling from 2006 to 2014. ;

In Illinois, to own a gun people are required to obtain a Firearm Owner Identification (FOID) card. ; The number of people with those cards as soared from a little over 1 million in 2010 to 1.8 million this month.

One obvious caution is that not everyone feels comfortable noting that they own guns. ;A recent Zogby Analytics survey asked, “If a national pollster asked you if you owned a firearm, would you determine to tell him or her the truth or would you feel it was none of their business?” ;Thirty-five percent of current gun owners ;said it was none of ;pollsters’ business. People who claim that they are not gun owners are slightly more likely to answer this way.

Ironically, the same GSS poll that finds gun ownership to be at a record low also finds that “confidence in all three branches of government is at or near record lows.” ;Those who don’t trust the government might also be less likely to admit to owning a gun. ;

We also know that recent events influence people’s willingness to acknowledge gun ownership. ;After mass shootings, the numbers fall. ;But, ;with gun sales soaring during the early to mid-1990s, it is hard to believe that gun ownership really fell according to the Gallup poll by 17 percentage points between 1994 and 1999. ;Most likely the mass public shootings simply made people reticent to acknowledge to pollsters that they owned guns.

But this isn’t the only limitation of gun ownership polls. Married men are much more likely than married women to say that they have a gun in the home. ;Either the men are hiding guns from their wives or, more likely, women are more reticent to admit to a pollster that they own a gun. ;If it is the later, that would increase the reported gun ownership rate from 1977 to 2012 in the GSS survey by about 4 percentage points.

There is a reason why places like RealClearPolitics have become popular websites for people who elections because they offer an average of all the polls out there. ;While any one poll might have errors in it or may be purposefully skewed to obtain a particular result, the average of polls is likely to give us a much more accurate picture. ;The point is no different for polls on gun ownership, though it is likely that all polls underestimate the true rate that people own guns and that gap may have been increasing in recent years. ;

The selective use of polls might provide gun control advocates a momentary talking point. ; Yet, what we do know is that hard numbers clearly show a huge increase in the percentage of Americans carrying guns and in gun sales.

John R. Lott, Jr. is a columnist for He is an economist and was formerly chief economist at the United States Sentencing Commission. Lott is also a leading expert on guns and op-eds on that issue are done in conjunction with the Crime Prevention Research Center. He is the author of eight books including “More Guns, Less Crime.” His latest book is “Dumbing Down the Courts: How Politics Keeps the Smartest Judges Off the Bench” Bascom Hill Publishing Group (September 17, 2013). Follow him on Twitter@johnrlottjr.