The more gun massacres there are in this country, the more we are bombarded with images of people stocking up on guns, apparently either terrified of losing their rights to own them or paranoid about needing to fend off imagined government attacks. So it would seem that United States households are armed to the teeth, right? Actually, no. That’s a false impression created by an over-zealous media looking for ways to grab the attention of the public, or perhaps by the National Rifle Association, hoping to increase membership and sales.
For years, researchers have known that the number of households owning guns has been on the decline–a trend that still holds. Data from the General Social Survey–a public opinion survey conducted every two years by the University of Chicago–has tracked gun ownership since 1973. The number of gun-owning households peaked in 1977, at 54%, and has steadily declined ever since, reaching 32% in 2012.
Here, specifically, is where the rate has dropped: in large cities, in small cities, in rural areas, in all regions of the U.S.–including the South and Western mountain states, in households with children, in households without children, in households that self-describe as happy, in those that are not, in households of churchgoers, in those who don’t go to church. In the 70’s, the rate of household ownership was 50%; in the 80’s, 49%; in the 90’s, 43%; in the 2000’s, 35%.
The last time this data was released, two years ago , the same reasons were given for the decline as are being cited today. In contrast to the elderly, young people aren’t interested in guns. They don’t hunt in the same numbers; they aren’t being drafted into the military where, in the past, people often got their first introduction to weapons; more kids are growing up in homes headed by women, who have a much lower ownership rate than men. In addition, parts of the country have a growing Latino population and Latinos are far less likely to own guns than the general populace.
So who is buying all those guns we keep seeing in news clips? Well, the elderly still have a 43% ownership rate. Republicans showed a very slight decline, but there is some evidence that it has risen back up, since 2008 (gee, what happened in 2008?), to about 51%. And men are three times as likely to own guns as women.
Daniel Webster of the John Hopkins Center For Gun Policy And Research told the New York Times:
“There are all these claims that gun ownership is going through the roof. But I suspect the increase in gun sales has been limited mostly to current gun owners. The most reputable surveys show a decline over time in the share of households with guns.”
So those of us who have paranoid, elderly, white, male, Republican neighbors might worry that some serious stockpiling of weapons is going on next door. For the rest of us, the data reveals the best gun news to hit the headlines in a very long time.