UPDATE: Gun ownership remains at 47%, but that probably underestimates the true rate

25 Mar , 2018  

UPDATE: Do you ever notice that most of these surveys on gun ownership seem to be done soon after a mass public shooting?  It isn’t like they include this question in surveys they do every March or October.  A new survey conducted from March 10th to 14th, 2018 by NBC News/Wall Street Journal shows that gun ownership has leveled off at 47% or 48% range over the last year.

Has gun ownership gone up 6 percentage points in just three years? Probably not.  That is the equivalent of a 13 percent increase in gun ownership.  Most likely, many people were unwilling to tell pollsters that they owned guns.  Still, with almost half of Americans owning guns according to this poll, one would have thought that it would get some news coverage.

These results imply that there are 59.3 million households with guns in 2017.  With an average household size of 2.53, that implies about 150 million people living in households with guns.

The Monmouth University Poll on March 2-5, 2018 asked: “Do you or anyone in your household own a gun, rifle, or pistol?”  With 46% saying “yes” and another 7% unsure or refusing to answer, it is quite plausible that half of all households own guns.

The following chart shows the most recent polling data on gun ownership rates by polling organization, and one can see what an outlier the General Social Survey (GSS) is.  Even the next lowest survey estimates of 40% represent a 25 percent higher gun ownership rate than the GSS.

As we have noted before, hard evidence on concealed handgun permits has continued to rise dramatically.  It isn’t too surprising that the number of gun owners has also gone up.

UPDATE: In addition to the ABC News/Washington Post and Gallup polls indicating that gun ownership rates are above 40% (shown below), 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

PEW polls, which had a drop in the percent of households that owned gun to 37% in February 2013, showed that was 44% of Americans in August 2016, and that it was 42% in March to April 2017.

Quinnipiac University (Dec. 16-20, 2015. N=1,140 registered voters nationwide) asked: “Do you personally own a gun or does someone else in your household own a gun?”  They found that 46% either owned a gun or lived in a household with a gun.

CBS News/YouGov (December 5-11, 2017) indicated that 40% of households owned a gun.

ORIGINAL POST on the General Social Survey (Nov 19, 2013): The New York Times cites the General Social Survey to claim that the gun ownership rate is low and falling.  In November 2014, the GSS continued to claim that 32% of households own guns.

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 and 42% again in 2017.  This implies that about 134 million Americans live in households with guns.  Gallup also reports the data a little differently elsewhere.

Or take the ABC News/Washington Post Poll (April 2013)

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

February 6, 2017 2.1 million

The Chicago Tribune claims that the number of FOID cards “has grown by almost 1 million since 2010, according to state police.” Using the Tribune numbers the percent of the adult population with FOID cards rose from 11.3% in 2010 (12.83 million with 75.6% 18 and older) to 21.15% in 2017 (12.8 million with 77.4% of the population 18 and over).

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 2013to 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.


22 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 […]

  17. […] June, CPRC updated an article about problems with the survey because the drop is not consistent in other polls. The organization […]

  18. […] say they or someone in their household owns a firearm. Many gun-rights advocates have expressed skepticism over poll-based gun ownership measures, suspecting that some gun owners will be shy about […]

  19. […] for gun purchases. An NBC/Wall Street Journal Survey puts household gun ownership at 48%. The Crime Prevention Research Center shows some of the difficulties with knowing the number for certain and other indicators that the number […]

  20. […] for gun purchases. An NBC/Wall Street Journal Survey puts household gun ownership at 48%. The Crime Prevention Research Center shows some of the difficulties with knowing the number for certain and other indicators that the number […]

  21. […] Gun ownership is at its highest since 1993 with 47% of households reporting possession. […]

  22. Gordon Couger says:

    Going by the NICS records doesn’t show the true picture. I have dads guns, granddad’s guns and and a few of my uncles guns. Plus all the guns I bought before the NICS program and the guns I tarted for from private citizens.
    When a pollster on the pone asks me about guns if am in a good mood, I hang up. If I am in a bad mood I suggest they do something impossible with time selves and hang up!

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