The National Rifle Association, firearms manufacturers and gun rights bloggers frequently state (and assume) that in the 21st century, a new generation of female, minority and millennial gun-owners purchases, carries and uses firearms. This claim aligns the firearms industry and gun rights zealots with new demographic realities in the United States, which of course no longer favor the traditional rural, white, male base of the gun-owning population. Affirmations of demographic breadth also justify the - somewhat breathtaking - wave of concealed-carry and open-carry laws approved by state legislatures in recent years, explains the exponential growth curve for gun purchases in the last decade, and augurs well for the comitatus vision of collective self-protection favored by gun rights and Second Amendment freedom fundamentalists of the Tea Party variety.
If only this beautiful vision were true.
Social research survey data from mainstream polling organizations (such as Gallup, Pew and NORC at the University of Chicago) tells us, over and over again, that women represent approximately 10 percent of the nation's gun-owning population. Indiana which by virtue of its history, geography, politics and demographics is almost perfectly representative of the gun culture and gun economy of the United States, may offer an opportunity to reassess this demographic truism, and with it the credibility of the NRA assertion that gun owners are not simply an atavistic remnant of a fading age of Caucasian male celerity, in which the gun, like many an appendage from our earliest species origins, survives only as a useless, slightly maligned encumbrance. Because guns in the United States are collocative with a host of other right-wing cultural tropes that have found their way into our political idiom (white supremacy, states rights, limited government, homophobia, biblical fundamentalism, military zeal, homespun rural values and toxic nostalgia, among others), the implications of any authoritative challenge to (what on the face of it are indeed) absurd, politically motivated claims of firearms fluorescence greatly matter for the future of political discourse, political opportunity and public policy in the United States.
As my Women and Guns essay emphasizes, much of this debate would not be necessary were the NRA and its fellow travelers open to transparent, consistent firearms data collection and reporting practices standard in pretty much every other public policy arena. But they are not open to these practices. And in lieu of real data, firearms freedom fanatics pump out an exhaustive (and exhausting) array of unsubstantiated assertions about the breadth, enthusiasm and virtue of their cohort. For instance, prior to the NRA annual convention in Indianapolis in 2014, the organization floated estimates that 25 percent of the attendees (or approximately 18,000) would be women. Ten years ago, female attendance at the NRA convention rarely exceeded 5-10 percent of the total, which might at that time have therefore amounted to about 4,000 or 5,000 women (although notably, even in 2004 the NRA touted (without substantiation) its growing cadre of female members). The final tally following the 2014 meeting was 19 percent. If one assumes attendance numbers include children (and the NRA is trying to be very family-friendly), and that closer to half of the children are females, we can deduce that the percentage breakdown for adults is probably closer to 85 percent male and 15 percent female (or about 11,000 adult women, rather than 18,000).
To be charitable, this data does indicate a significant uptick in the participation rates of women at the nation's largest and most politically supernatural firearms festival, so one might say this gives the NRA and the gun rights folks cause for cheer!
In January 2013, the Indiana State Police began publishing quarterly reports that detail the number of active concealed carry gun licenses held by Indiana residents, by county and by gender. As compared to the FBI background check information, which calls out specific transactions reported by firearms dealers (although not specific quantities of guns purchased), the Indiana State Police permit data identifies individuals approved to carry concealed weapons, independently of transaction or firearm ownership numbers. As a result, the Indiana State Police data gives us a more precise demographic perspective on intrastate gun ownership patterns.
The same Indianapolis Star article referencing the 25 percent female attendee projection for the NRA convention in Indianapolis used Indiana State Police data to spotlight "explosive" growth in the number of women in Indiana with concealed carry permits, an increase of 43 percent in only 5 quarters, from Q4 2012 through Q1 2014. At the end of Q4 2014, the state had issued approximately 22 percent of its gun permits to women. Further cause for cheer! Perhaps the modern woman does indeed incorporate a Smith & Wesson into her ensemble.
But here's the thing, and I'm afraid this means there will not be three cheers for Indiana gun owners. Without getting into the weeds on these Indiana State Police calculations, the most accurate data, comparing the last 6 months of 2013 and 2014, shows a dramatic decrease in compound annual growth rate (CAGR) and raw numbers for gun permits issued to Indiana women. In the last 2 quarters of 2013, the state issued 15,407 concealed carry permits to women, for a CAGR of 32.95 percent. In the last 2 quarters of 2014, the state issued only 5,372 concealed carry permits to women, for a CAGR of 8.65 percent. The downward trend probably indicates that a relatively small pool of female candidates exists for concealed carry permission, and that this lake is pretty quickly drying up.
Here are some other findings.
- Rural Indiana. County-level analysis of the data shows that gun permit registration levels per 100,000 inhabitants are highest in the smallest, least densely populated, slowest-growing, oldest, least crime-ridden and most Caucasian counties of the state (generally in the southwest corner of the state, where the traditional gun-owning cohort resides - see map).
- Suburban Indiana. Gun permit registration levels are also high in two of the more affluent suburban counties ringing Indianapolis in the center part of the state - Hancock County and Morgan County.
- Urban Indiana. Gun permit registration are lowest per 100,000 inhabitants in the largest, more densely populated, fastest-growing, youngest, most crime-heavy and most racially and ethnically diverse counties of the state (generally in the northern half of the state).
- Indianapolis. Marion County, which is essentially Indianapolis, and among Indiana's 92 counties easily the most densely populated (with 15 percent of the state's population), has roughly half the concentration of concealed carry permits as its suburban neighbors in Hancock County and Morgan County. Some will argue that black-on-black crime and illegally obtained guns go hand in hand. But if one assumes (falsely, presumably) that whites obtained all legal concealed carry permits issued in Marion Count, the concentrations per 100,000 inhabitants would still be significantly lower than for the surrounding suburban counties.
- The Female Gun-Ownership Base. Within the counties that register the highest rates of concealed-carry permits, women obtained permits in the last 2 quarters of 2014 at nearly 3 times the frequency of their counterparts in counties with the lowest concentration of permits. By contrast, the men in high-rate counties obtained permits at only a bit more than 1.5 times the frequency of men in low-rate counties. Women in high-rate counties represented 45 percent of permits obtained in this period, while women in low-rate counties represented only 32 percent of permits obtained.
None of this data is good news for the firearms and freedom crowd. Demographic conditions simply do not exist for the explosive growth of gun ownership by women in Indiana. To the contrary, and despite the best efforts of the right-to-carry movement, these demographic constraints on female gun ownership overwhelm the catalysts to such growth. And if the conditions for this growth do not exist in Indiana, they likely do not exist elsewhere in the nation.
As the Hancock and Morgan county numbers indicate, suburban gun ownership provides the only hope for the NRA and the gun rights movement. We are therefore left with only two cheers for Indiana and it's gun-toting women. And with this conclusion, much of the substance for NRA and gun evangelist assertions about the relevance of gun ownership and gun rights for emerging generations of Americans who are not white, male and rural drains away. As with the Republican Party, in general, the only option for Second Amendment true believers, is to bet everything on the base, at the risk of losing relevance with everyone else.