In this era of open government and data transparency, the demographics of gun ownership in the United States remain opaque. Which poses a conundrum for gun rights zealots. On the one hand, the National Rifle Association has pushed hard to limit collection and disclosure of gun purchase and ownership data. The NRA also has successfully curbed research for public health studies regarding the use and abuse of guns.
At the same time, the NRA, along with various hunting, target-shooting, concealed-carry, and open-carry advocates, have recently made a big deal of the claim that gun owners are no longer simply older white guys with beer bellies and a pickup truck. One of the most aggressive claims is that women are flocking to gun ranges, arming themselves, and fully embracing the idea that guns>protection and guns>empowerment.
Here's Larry Starvin of Wanchese, North Carolina (in a response to my essay on Guns and Freedom).
Go to a gun range--look at all the young people 18-25 who are there-look at all the women 18-50 who are there--look at all the guys 25-65 who are there... If you had a clue--you would know that there are new gun owners every day--most in the 25-45 year old range--and out of them, most are women.
And here's Jeff Howard, Sergeant Major (Retired), U.S. Army (in another response to the essay).
I conduct CCW Courses, over HALF of my students are FEMALE (Empowered Women) of ALL ages, 21-78. I attended a Firearms Training Course last weekend with over 400 students, taking handgun, shotgun, long gun and assorted AR Courses... and that happens almost everyday of the week there.
Gun people cannot have it both ways -- stifling data collection and data disclosure concerning firearms use, while at the same time grandstanding about demographic trends in gun ownership based purely on anecdote and speculation. Happily, new data sources provide at least glimmerings of insight into the state of the gun market. So let's test some of the gun ownership demographic claims of our firearms friends.
Public Data on Gun Ownership
Earlier this year, release of the most recent NORC General Social Survey confirmed long-term trends toward a bifurcation of gun ownership that closely tracks the polarization of the political parties in the United States.
- Fewer Americans own guns. The percentage of Americans who live in a household with a gun has fallen to approximately 32 percent, its lowest level in nearly four decades. (this data to some degree contradicts Gallup and Pew surveys indicating that gun ownership rates have remained relatively constant over time, tracking at about 42 percent, with a high of 52 percent in 1993).
- Partisan identification matters. The percentage of Republicans who live in a household with a gun has remained steady at about 55 percent since 1980. In this same period, Democrats who say they live in a household with a gun has fallen from 55 percent to 22 percent.
- Gun ownership patterns track population movement and partisan shifts. Gun ownership remains stable in the American South and in rural parts of the nation, both of which have become solidly Republican in the past four decades. At the same time, urban dwellers more consistently identify as Democrats, are a larger percentage of the population, and percentages of urban dwellers who own guns have dropped in line with percentages for Democrats.
- Guns sales have surged. In the most recent decade, annual gun purchases (as measured by background checks) have more than doubled, at least partly fueled by the fear of more legal restrictions on gun ownership (and possibly also fueled by fears of a black America, with the election to the presidency of Barack Obama).
Gun rights spokesmen will reliably tell you that no one in their right mind would be truthful about their gun inventory, since honesty invites government scrutiny, surveillance, and seizure. The logical difficulties with this assertion -- which emerge from the troubling effort to prove a negative, over and over again -- tells us far more about the mind of the gun rights purist than the validity of NORC survey results. But the assertion itself does point us toward the following set of paradoxes.
- More lax gun ownership laws. Fewer gun owners. Even as gun ownership laws in state after state have loosened to allow concealed-carry and open-carry privileges to pretty much anyone legally allowed to own a gun, and even as the limitations on gun ownership have generally slipped away, fewer Americans choose to own guns.
- Less crime. More guns owned for protection. By and large, gun ownership remains a hinterlands phenomenon and a regional phenomenon. Moreover, in the urban areas in which lower percentages of the population own guns, violent crime has continued to drop precipitously (although there is no consensus on causation). At the same time, more Americans, and more women, do say they own guns for protection (although largely in the statistically less-dangerous regions of the country).
- Less gun control. More paranoia. Legislators have opened the flood-gates for concealed-carry and open-carry permits. Secondary and online markets for guns operate with impunity. We may be experiencing a historically glorious moment of legislative and judicial dispensation and validation for American gun owners. Yet delusion and paranoia within the gun-rights community has never been more intense.
The Gun Lobby Perception Machine
Given the lack of hard data, or given the unwillingness of the NRA to disclose the hard data it surely possesses, it seems likely that most of the perception emerges itself from the efforts of the NRA, and of the gun industry, generally, to reinvent itself for the demographic realities of the 21st century. The consensus guess is that fewer than 10 percent of the NRA's 4 million members are female. Ethnic and racial minorities are also pretty significantly underrepresented in the NRA. And as long as Wayne LaPierre serves as the post-Charlton Heston GET OFF MY LAWN face of the organization, it's not difficult to deduce why the NRA is not growing much beyond its Southern, rural base of older, white men.
Not that the NRA isn't trying. For millennials and minorities, creating a spotlight for the hip video stylings of Colion Noir on NRA Freestyle. Showcasing profiles of attractive young gun luminaries in The NRA Third Century photo gallery. And for the ladies, the polished video-themed section of its website called NRA Women, which features the comforting production values of daytime talk show television. My favorite? The organization's fantastic Armed & Fabulous page, which profiles (white) women who dedicate their (well-appointed) lives to defending our Second Amendment. All sponsored by Smith & Wesson!
It's great stuff, particularly if one appreciates the etymology of "fabulous" and its associations with "fable", "myth" and "legend". But for this reason, also, it's perhaps great stuff which is merely the leading edge of a forlorn, clueless, marketing-driven stab at relevance. And certainly not assisted by debacles such as the recent tragedy when a woman accidentally shot herself while adjusting her bra holster.
Texas may bring us the saddest illustration of the American gun culture's effort to showcase itself. A recent Houston Chronicle report on "soaring" gun female gun ownership includes a photo gallery that features "Texas women with some of their most prized possessions, the handguns they use for personal protection in public and in their inner sanctums." The photos (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9) are strange and bizarre and entirely lacking in artistic merit, but also chilling for the dread they inspire, and fully a testament to the Gothic, trailer park decolletage that filigrees associations of firearms with freedom, control, and destiny.
Let's Look at Some New Data About Women and Guns
A compellingly new and postmodern source of demographic data about women and guns does exist to help us plow through the rigmarole.
Web analytics company Quantcast publishes rich, well-structured audience data for thousands of major websites. With the metrics for 62 websites, we can explore in new ways the participation rates of women in the digital culture and conversations revolving around guns. The sample includes online domains serving Gun Rights (11), Conservative Opinion (20), Mainstream (6), Progressive Opinion (8), Outdoor Sports (2), Female (3), African-American (6), and Millennial (6) audiences.
Here are the essential findings.
- Online Destinations. Percentage of Female Visitors. Traffic data for the 11 gun rights websites generally aligns with the nostrum that women represent approximately 10 percent of the gun-owning population. This online data offers no evidence that significantly higher percentages of women are purchasing and using guns. Moreover, comparison of female participation rates across different website categories reveals that females are vastly, disproportionately underrepresented on gun rights websites compared to other categories of websites.
- Traffic Breakdown. All Website Cohorts. The table below breaks out female audience engagement for each website category as a percentage of total traffic, and as an index ranking (a deviation from an expected value). Across all categories, women represent an average of 29 percent of domain traffic. Websites that serve females understandably rank highest, with an average participation share of 72 percent for women. The gun rights category fares significantly worse than any other category, with an 8 percent female participation rate.
- Traffic Breakdown. Gun Rights Websites. Within the Gun Rights cohort of websites, the percentage of traffic derived from females ranges from 16 percent at OpenCarry.org all the way down to 3 percent at AmmoSeek.com. At GunBroker.com, the most popular website among the gun rights sample (with a U.S. ranking of 459), only 5 percent of the visitors are female.
- Fewer Females. By Orders of Magnitude. Viewed from another angle, within the total traffic universe for each website, women are nine times as likely to visit a female-oriented website, nearly 7.5 times as likely to visit a website appealing to African-Americans, 5.5 times as likely to visit a Mainstream website, and nearly five times as likely to visit a Progressive Opinion website.
- Conservative Politics. Female traffic comprises 23 percent and 15 percent of the totals, respectively, of Conservative Opinion and Outdoor Sports domains. However the percentage of females using Gun Rights websites -- which one would associate with both conservative politics and outdoor sports such as hunting and fishing -- is consistently and markedly lower than the thresholds established by these collections of like-minded websites.
- The Numbers Align. Quantcast does not tag and measure traffic for the National Rifle Association website. However, the Quantcast traffic numbers for gun rights websites are consistent with estimates that women constitute only about 10 percent of total NRA membership.
- No Critical Mass. Conservative opinion, outdoor sports and gun rights websites comprise 24 of the 31 domains in the bottom half of the list ranked by female participation. But gun rights websites alone comprise 10 of the bottom 13! In other words, only 1 of the Gun Rights websites ranks among the top 49 websites in terms of female participation (that website -- OpenCarry.org -- ranks 40th out of 62),
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