Problems with using the General Social Survey to measure gun ownership

19 Nov , 2013  

UPDATE: In addition to the ABC News/Washington Post and Gallup polls indicating that gun ownership rates are above 40%, similar results are obtained from CNN poll conducted on January 5-6, 2016 that finds 40% live in a household owning a gun with 9% unwilling to state an opinion, implying that the true rate is above 40%.  The CNN poll shows this.

CNN January 2016 Gun Ownership Poll

On the other hand, a small PEW poll with few observations, so it doesn’t have the weight given to the other polling, seems consistent with the GSS survey.

ORIGINAL POST on the General Social Survey: The New York Times cites the General Social Survey to claim that the gun ownership rate is low and falling.

It is an impressive drop, and many have used it to claim that while gun sales have increased, the increase has taken the form of more guns being owned by a smaller and smaller number of people.  In a July 31 article, CNN stated it this way:

A decreasing number of American gun owners own two-thirds of the nation’s guns and as many as one-third of the guns on the planet — even though they account for less than 1% of the world’s population, according to a CNN analysis of gun ownership data.

The data, collected by the Injury Prevention Journal, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the General Social Survey and population figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, found that the number of U.S. households with guns has declined, but current gun owners are gathering more guns. . . .

Yet, the GSS survey shows a large drop that you don’t see in many other surveys.  According to Gallup, in October 2011, they wrote: At 47%, reported gun ownership is the highest it has been in nearly two decades — a finding that may be related to Americans’ dampened support for gun-control laws.”  Here is the Gallup survey data since 1991.

The latest Gallup poll claims that household ownership of guns in 2014 stands at 42 percent.  This implies that about 134 million Americans live in households with guns.  Gallup also reports the data a little differently elsewhere.

Household gun ownership rate Gallup

Or take the ABC News/Washington Post Poll

Surveys always have problems with them, but in many cases surveys are the only way to determine gun ownership rates.  One measure is to look at licensed gun owners, though there have only been a few states that have licenses and haven’t changed the rules for getting the permits.  Most notable is the state of Illinois.  Over the last six years the GSS survey implies that legal gun ownership has fallen in Illinois, but FOID cards, which are necessary to legally own a gun, have been rising.

Whereas a few years ago, 1.2 million Illinoisans held Firearm Owners Identification cards, the number has jumped to 1.6 million, state police spokeswoman Monique Bond said. Soon after the court decreed in December that Illinois couldn’t ban public carry anymore, demand for FOID cards jumped precipitously. In January alone, Bond reported, there were 61,000 FOID applications, nearly double the 31,000 in January 2012. . . .

The 1.2 million FOID card holders appear to be true for 2009.  From the Illinois State Police we have these data:

2010        1,316,508

2011         1,395,114

2012         1,476,408

9/6/13     1,633,039

12/31/15  1,942,008

There is additional hard data that indicates more people are owning guns.  The number of concealed handgun permits also provide some information, with the number of permits increasing from about 4.6 million in 2007 to well over 9.3 million at the beginning of 2013 to about 13 million in 2015.

The GSS survey has raised concerns for some time.  Here is something that John Lott wrote in his 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, which is well known for its gun control advocacy (or see here).  This discussion is definitely not saying that the Joyce Foundation funding altered their views, but just that Joyce knows the individuals who are on their side of the debate.

Interesting side note: Taxes and fees on gun ownership are associated with big differences in gun ownership with income (Chicago and DC are obvious examples).  By contrast, for the wide income range going from $33,000 to $75,000 and those above $75,000, Gallup indicates that the gun ownership rates for the country as a whole are identical.


16 Responses

  1. […] are becoming gun owners. Mother Jones picks one survey that fits their views on the world and ignores the other evidence and the problems with the survey that they pick. Nor is there any discussion of the impact that gun control laws, such as banning certain types of […]

  2. […] producers appeared to want to argue that gun ownership had fallen, dropping as low as 33%, implying that gun ownership really is not all that popular any […]

  3. […] wanted to tell. The producers appeared to want to argue that gun ownership had fallen, dropping as low as 33%, implying that gun ownership really is not all that popular any more. Yet, as I explained to the […]

  4. […] producers appeared to want to argue that gun ownership had fallen, dropping as low as 33%, implying that gun ownership really is not all that popular any […]

  5. […] producers appeared to want to argue that gun ownership had fallen, dropping as low as 33%, implying that gun ownership really is not all that popular any […]

  6. […] producers appeared to want to argue that gun ownership had fallen, dropping as low as 33%, implying that gun ownership really is not all that popular any […]

  7. […] producers appeared to want to argue that gun ownership had fallen, dropping as low as 33%, implying that gun ownership really is not all that popular any […]

  8. […] annual number of federal background checks increased from 8.5 to 21 million. According to Gallup, 42 percent of Americans now have a gun in the […]

  9. […] annual number of federal background checks increased from 8.5 to 21 million. According to Gallup, 42 percent of Americans now have a gun in the […]

  10. […] Johnson: Declining household gun ownership mythProblems with using the General Social Survey to measure gun ownershipGeneral Social SurveyU.S. Gun Ownership Over […]

  11. Tom Prendergast says:

    I would not be surprised to find out that the average gun owner is more reluctant than ever to admit in any survey that he/she owns a gun. There can be little doubt that this administration is anti gun so why let them know that you have one!

  12. […] ABC News/Washington Post poll shows an even more stable pattern, with household gun ownership between 44 and 46 percent in […]

  13. […] ABC News/Washington Post poll shows an even more stable pattern, with household gun ownership between 44 and 46 percent in […]

  14. […] ABC News/Washington Post poll shows an even more stable pattern, with household gun ownership between 44 and 46 percent in […]

  15. […] A 2011 Gallup poll shows gun ownership has surged, to 47% of the population. Please note that was well before the buying surge that occurred after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, which saw gun sales—and new gun ownership—skyrocket. Other polls, concur with Gallup that percentage of people owning guns is either stable or rising. […]

  16. […] in gun ownership since its peak in the late ’70s, according to NORC data. (Its findings are disputed by some observers yet broadly consistent with Gallup polling on the issue.) However, separate figures have shown a […]

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