Fewer and Fewer Americans Own Guns

05/21/2015 01:52 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2016

Household gun ownership in America is on a steady, long-term decline.

That's according to data from the latest edition of the General Social Survey (GSS), which is conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago.

My organization, the Violence Policy Center, takes a look at this research in our new report, "A Shrinking Minority: The Continuing Decline of Gun Ownership in America."

The GSS has been surveying American households on gun ownership since 1972. As NORC notes, "Except for the U.S. Census, the GSS is the most frequently analyzed source of information in the social sciences." The NORC data shows that American household gun ownership hit its peak in 1977, when more than half of American households (53.7 percent) reported having any guns. By 2014, only 32.4 percent of American households had a gun in the home -- less than a third.


A similar trend can be seen in the decline in personal gun ownership. The GSS finds that the percentage of Americans who reported personally owning a gun dropped more than 26 percent from 1985 to 2014. In 1985, 30.5 percent of Americans said they personally owned a gun. The percentage is now down to 22.4 percent, or a little more than one in five.

Not surprisingly, most gun owners tend to be white men who live outside cities.

Drawing from data from 2010 to 2014, NORC found that 39 percent of white respondents said they lived in a household with a gun. During the same period, 18.1 percent of black respondents and 15.2 percent of Hispanic respondents said there was a gun in their household. NORC found that "households with firearms are concentrated in rural areas and in regions with more residents living in rural areas."

And as gun owners age and die off, the efforts of the NRA and its financial backers in the gun industry to find "young guns" have been less than successful.

In 1980, 23.5 percent of those under 35 owned a gun while 27.4 percent of those 65 years of age and older owned a gun, an age gap of 3.9 percentage points. By 2014, this gap had expanded to 16.4 percentage points, with gun ownership dropping to 14 percent among those under 35 and increasing to 30.4 percent for those 65 years of age and older.

And so far, the movement-wide effort to significantly increase gun ownership among women -- the NRA and gun industry's Holy Grail -- has failed.

According to NORC (emphasis mine):

Personal ownership of firearms has not appreciably change[d] for women from 1980 through 2014. Between nine percent and 14 percent of women personally owned a firearm during those years and there is no meaningful trend in the level of personal ownership.

In 2014, 11.7 percent of women personally owned a firearm.

And while gunmakers might initially take heart in NORC data showing that the gender gap in gun ownership is narrowing, any excitement is sure to be short-lived. The gender gap is narrowing not because significantly more women are owning guns but because far fewer men are. In 1980, 50.3 percent of men owned a firearm while 10.1 percent of women owned a gun, a gender gap of 40.2 percentage points. By 2014, gun ownership was 35.1 percent for men and 11.7 percent for women, a gender gap of 23.4 percentage points.

One of the key reasons cited for the steady drop in household gun ownership is the decline in the popularity of hunting.

The GSS data shows that in 1977, 31.6 percent of adults lived in a household where they, a spouse, or both were hunters. By 2014, this number had dropped to 15.4 percent.


Other generally accepted reasons for the diminishing number of gun-owning households include:

  • The end of military conscription. Fewer individuals with a military background means decreased exposure to firearms, hence fewer households with an interest in owning guns.

  • Restrictions on shooting ranges. Environmental issues (including the lead-poisoning threat to children posed by exposure to fired ammunition as well as the "hand loading" of ammunition), as well as zoning issues, have forced shooting ranges to close and limited construction of new ranges.

  • Land-use issues that limit hunting and other shooting activities. As our nation becomes increasingly urban and suburban, the land available for shooting activities continues to diminish.

  • Competition for leisure-time activities of children. From video games to organized sports activities, the competition for the leisure time of children -- the key age group targeted by the gun industry as "replacement shooters" for introduction into hunting and shooting -- is intense, and guns are losing out.

  • The increase in single-parent homes headed by women. The most common introduction to guns is through a male family member.

One of the greatest successes of the NRA and the gun industry has been their ability to act as if they represent a majority of Americans. This is in spite of the fact that the NRA represents only a tiny fraction of gun owners, let alone all Americans, and gunmakers are a relatively small industry compared with other manufacturers of consumer goods. Yet this mistaken belief in their own popularity -- based on nothing more than chest-thumping and false assertions -- is what drives the NRA and its financial backers in the gun industry as they push for policies and legislation that benefit only them, from one law after the next that expands concealed carry in public spaces to a militarized product line that facilitates public mayhem.

The facts are these. A clear majority -- two thirds -- of Americans don't have guns in their homes. Almost four out of five Americans don't personally own a gun. And as the gun-owning population continues to age and die off, fewer Americans are taking their place.

These numbers terrify the NRA and their "corporate partners" in the gun industry but should offer hope for the majority of Americans who are tired of being held hostage by the gun lobby and firearms industry.