Contrary to the familiar chatter of the gun industry and the gun lobby, firearms ownership has declined dramatically over the past 35 years. From 1972 to 2006, the percentage of American households that reported having any guns in the home has dropped nearly 20 percentage points: from a high of 54 percent in 1977 to 34.5 percent in 2006. During the period 1980 to 2006, the percentage of Americans who reported personally owning a gun dropped more than nine percentage points: from a high of 30.7 percent in 1985 to a low during the survey period of 21.6 percent in 2006. Or to look at it another way, nearly two thirds of American homes are gun free, and more than three quarters of Americans do not personally own a gun. This information comes from the General Social Survey (GSS) which is conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago. Except for the U.S. Census, the GSS is the most frequently analyzed source of information in the social sciences and is the only survey that has tracked the opinions of Americans over an extended period of time. A new report from NORC based on the GSS data, Public Attitudes Toward the Regulation of Firearms, concludes that "...gun ownership has been declining over the last 35 years and the 9/11 terrorist attacks did not reverse that trend."
This isn't the best news to greet the NRA as it prepares to open its annual meeting this Thursday in St. Louis, MO.
A new Violence Policy Center analysis of the NORC data, A Shrinking Minority: The Continuing Decline of Gun Ownership in America notes, "When talking to the news media, gunmakers work to present themselves as a vibrant, growing industry that is an inextricable part of American society." For example, in a June 2006 press release, National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) President Doug Painter states that "...gun sales and ownership in our country continue to rise." In the release, the NSSF adds without attribution, "The number of American households with at least one firearm is now estimated at nearly 47.8 million." According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, in 2005 there were an estimated 108,819,000 households in America. Using NSSF's figures, 43.9 percent of American households have a gun--more than nine percentage points higher than the most recent NORC household gun ownership figure.
The NSSF is not alone in its efforts to puff up the facts about how many Americans have guns in their homes or personally own firearms. The National Rifle Association (NRA) routinely claims that nearly half of all American households have guns and also misleadingly boasts, "The number of gun owners is also at an all-time high."
Yet, for the past decade, when talking amongst themselves in industry publications, the issue, as voiced in one gunmaker's ad in 1998 is, "It's not `who your customers will be in five years.' It's `will there be any customers left?'" This fact is openly acknowledged in gun industry publications and among the associations that act on the industry's behalf. Discussions of the continuing decline in gun ownership, and the inability to find replacement buyers to take the place of the aging primary market of white males, are often characterized by tones of panic and, at the same time, resignation.
So why--as gauged by their misleading claims on gun ownership--are the gun industry and gun lobby whistling as they walk together through the graveyard? Because the political might of both the NRA and the gun industry relies on consistently overestimating the number of Americans who own guns. To publicly acknowledge that the gun culture in America is fading away, and that they are a clear minority, undercuts their political power. Unfortunately for the NRA and the gun manufacturers, saying it doesn't make it so.