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It’s as predictable as the sun: The Obama administration proposes a new gun rule and sales jump. In early December, the president called on Congress to make it harder for people on the federal No-Fly List to buy guns. That month, the number of background checks, which is tied to sales, hit 3.3 million, the highest monthly rate since checks started in 1998.
Then over New Year’s weekend came news that the administration would announce tighter licensing requirements for gun sellers and other measures. By Jan. 5, shares in the gunmaker Smith & Wesson had risen 11 percent, and more than 7 percent for Sturm, Ruger & Co., another leading gunmaker. “I’ve been very good for gun manufacturers,” Obama acknowledged in a Jan. 7 CNN interview.
What he didn’t point out is that while overall sales of guns are going up, fewer individuals may be buying them. The data are mixed, but some studies suggest a long-term decline in the proportion of U.S. households with guns, due to the decline in hunting, demographic shifts and reduced fears of crime. Meanwhile, gun sales appear to have spiked largely because current owners are buying additional ones. The changing household rate could have implications for gun crime and the gun debate going forward, say some researchers and advocates for more gun regulation.
A fight over poll numbers
According to some studies, gun ownership has steadily declined over the decades, to less than a third of the population. In the 1970s, an average of 48 percent of respondents to the General Social Survey, run by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, said they had a gun at home. But the figure dropped gradually, reaching a record low of 31 percent in 2014, the latest year for which data are available. Larger studies have also found rates in the 30s. A 2002 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey of about 241,000 adults found a rate of 33 percent, for example.
Gun-rights supporters, however, say these numbers are artificially low because firearms owners are reluctant to tell pollsters they have weapons at home. They point to other polls: A Gallup study conducted each year since the 1990s has often shown higher figures than the GSS — 41 percent in 2014, for example. And an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted since 1999 has turned up ownership rates in the low 40s.
But the GSS researchers challenge the notion that gun owners aren’t truthful in surveys, pointing to follow-up studies that tested gun owners’ honesty with pollsters.
In a rigorous 2001 study, 94 percent of concealed-carry holders whom GSS researchers called truthfully told researchers that they had a gun. Similar validation studies by other researchers in 1990 and 1995 had gotten similar results. If anything, gun owners are likely to be overrepresented in surveys, GSS researchers asserted in a January 2014 paper. That’s because rural residents, a group with high levels of gun ownership, are also more likely to respond to polls, according to several studies.
Meanwhile, gun owners are buying additional guns. A Washington Post estimate last year using government survey data concluded that the average gun-owning household now has nearly twice as many guns as 20 years ago — up from 4.1 in 1994 to 8.1 in 2013. A 2007 study concluded that almost half of gun owners have at least four firearms.
If there are fewer homes with guns, the decline in hunting due in part to urbanization may be one explanation. Forty percent fewer hunting licenses were issued in 2014 than in 1970, adjusted for population growth.
Take Brian O’Neel, 49. In 2012, he moved for a job, relocating his family from a 33-acre property in rural Wisconsin to Media, Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia exurb. At his previous home, he could step outside to hunt deer, rabbits and squirrels. Today he’d have to travel at least two hours to get to land on which to hunt. “My hunting days are at least on hold if not over,” he says. Now he’s going through a divorce and is sharing living quarters with housemates, who he says wouldn’t be comfortable having his hunting rifle around. So he left it in his old house, where his wife lives.
O’Neel’s case illustrates another reason that there are fewer households with guns — smaller household sizes. Census data show that the proportion of one-person households rose from 17 to 27 percent from 1970 to 2012 and that the average number of people per household declined by 16 percent. With fewer adults in a home, the less likely it is that there will be a gun.
“If there’s a household with a man and a woman and the man owns the gun and then there’s a divorce, now there are two households, one with no gun,” says David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. “In some sense, it’s not like she’s gotten rid of a gun — she’s gotten rid of a husband.”
That points to a related factor in the changes in household composition: the increase in female-headed households. Men are three times as likely as women to own a gun, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center study. With the portion of households headed by single women more than doubling from 1970 to 2015, the share with guns has inevitably decreased.
For example, Joni, a 60-year-old business owner from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, grew up around guns. Her father hunted and at any one time had five to 10 loaded guns around the house. He bought her a .22 rifle when she was 9, and she loved hunting. When she moved away from home, she took her rifle with her.
But several years later, after a divorce, when she was living on her own, she got rid of the .22 because she didn’t feel safe having it at home. “I’m a female. I’m not the strongest person in the world, so statistically, there’s an excellent chance that if I’d confront a person with a gun, they’d take it away from me,” she says. (She didn’t want her full name used because she says that opinion is unpopular and might hurt her business.)
GSS director Tom Smith points to yet another reason for the decline: the precipitous drop in crime since the early ’90s. The proportion of respondents in the GSS who said they were afraid to walk alone at night decreased from 45 percent in 1994 to 34 percent in 2012. “With less crime there’s less demand, particularly for handguns,” Smith says.
(The National Rifle Association didn’t respond to requests for comment on this story.)
A further drop?
Gun crime has dropped in tandem with the household ownership rate reflected in the GSS. Homicides committed with a handgun, which make up the majority, have fallen almost 40 percent since the early ’90s.
Research suggests that correlation between household ownership and gun crime is no accident. In a study published last year in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, a team from Harvard and the Boston Children’s Hospital looked at 30 years of data and concluded that higher levels of firearm ownership are associated with higher rates of firearm-related violent crime. “There is a strong relationship between household gun ownership and gun crime, including gun homicide,” says Hemenway. Studies have found that a similar relationship holds between household ownership and suicides and accidental firearm deaths.
Continuing demographic changes could bring a further drop in the household gun rate. That’s because 61 percent of those who own guns are white men, according to the 2013 Pew survey, and their share of the population is projected to fall. (Women and minorities are less than half as likely to own a gun.) The number of white men as a proportion of the adult U.S. population will drop from 37 percent in 2014 to 28 percent in 2030, according to Census projections.
The changing population makeup also could have a significant impact on the gun debate. “The growing populations in America — Latinos, Asians, African Americans, people who live in urban areas — are all populations that show more support for gun control,” says Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor and author of the book Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.
But the trend will go in the opposite direction if more women and minorities start buying. That’s why the NRA is reaching out to those groups — it’s launched a number of programs that aim to get women involved and now features people of color in some ad campaigns. “The NRA didn’t become the political powerhouse it is by being stupid,” says Winkler.
But one gun-control advocate wonders whether a generational shift is at work. “When that population [of current, mostly white male gun owners] dies, what happens to these guns?” asks Josh Sugarmann, who directs the Violence Policy Center, which researches firearms issues. “Do family members want all these weapons? That’s a very open question.”
If Joni, the South Carolina business owner, is any guide, the answer may be no. When her father died, she says, neither she nor her three siblings wanted his extensive gun collection. They sold the firearms — none has a gun at home today, she says.
Even if fewer people keep guns, manufacturer profits likely will keep growing. In a January report, industry analyst IBISWorld projected an 8 percent profit margin for gun and ammunition makers this year and 3 percent annual growth in sales through 2021.
In part, revenues will stay strong because perhaps no product in America has become so tightly interwoven with political identity. For many, buying a gun is a kind of tribal identification. That’s likely why iconic gun manufacturer Ruger advertises its new American Pistol with the tagline “Because Anything Else Would Be Un-American.”
It’s also why proposals to limit access should continue to boost sales. IBISWorld’s report notes that gun sales rise and fall with consumers’ perceptions of whether new regulations are on the way — for many gun owners, to buy a gun is to vote with their wallet. NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre made that clear in a February 2013 Daily Caller article: “Since the election [of Barack Obama], millions of Americans have been lining up in front of gun stores. … They are demonstrating they have a mass determination to buy, own and use firearms. … We will not surrender. We will not appease. We will buy more guns than ever.”