U.S. Gun Ownership Declines

National Rifle Association instructor and retired Navy Warrant Officer Martin Scheutzow and his wife Arlene Scheutzow shoot their rifles along a mountain range in Buckeye, Arizona January 20, 2013. According to a new report, gun ownership in the US is on the decline. Joshua Lott/Reuters

Updated | The number of American households that own one or more guns has again reached its lowest point, according to data from a survey released March 3.

Gun ownership is now back at the low point it reached in 2010: Only 32 percent of Americans own a firearm or live with someone who does, compared with about half the population in the late 1970s and early 1980s, according to the 2014 General Social Survey (GSS). The survey is a project of independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, with principal funding from the National Science Foundation.

The poll also found that 22 percent of Americans personally own a firearm, down from a high of 31 percent in 1985. The percentage of men who own a firearm is down from 50 percent in 1980 to 35 percent in 2014, while the number of women who own a gun has remained relatively steady since 1980, coming in at 12 percent in 2014.

The 2014 survey showed that roughly half of Republicans live in a household with at least one gun, The Associated Press reports, which is about double the rate among Democrats or independents. Though principal investigator Tom W. Smith says his analysis didn’t focus on political affiliation, a basic run of the numbers suggests that roughly 25 percent of Democrats and 23 percent of independents live in a household with at least one gun.

Conducted roughly every two years since 1972, the GSS has collected “data on contemporary American society in order to monitor and explain trends and constants in attitudes, behaviors, and attributes,” as well as to examine society’s structure and functioning and compare the U.S. with other societies.

It routinely collects information about national spending priorities, marijuana use, crime and punishment, race relations, quality of life, confidence in institutions and, more recently, sexual behavior. The 2014 poll also included questions about quality of working life, shared capitalism, wealth, work and family balance, social identity, social isolation and civic participation.

According to “Trends in Gun Ownership in the United States, 1972-2014,” an analysis of the 2014 survey data by Smith and Jaesok Son to be published on the NORC website, gun ownership rates differed among respondents of different races, income levels and other factors:

In 2010-14, household firearms ownership was higher among households with white respondents (39.0%) than among those with black respondents (18.1%). Similarly, it was greater among non-Hispanics (36.0%) than among Hispanics (15.2%). Household gun ownership was greater among respondents in household with higher incomes.... It rose from 18.2% for households with income below $25,000 to 44.0% for those with ($90,000+).... Adults living [in] households with firearms are concentrated in rural areas and in regions with more residents living in rural areas.

Though the number of firearm purchases has most likely gone up, according to data from the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check system, those firearms are owned by fewer individuals. In other words, the average gun owner probably owns more guns.

“It is likely that the average number of guns in households with guns has probably gone up,” says Smith, but it’s difficult to be certain. Using background check numbers, he says, can be misleading for two reasons. First, every background check does not necessarily translate into a purchase. And background checks take into account only purchases from licensed dealers; they do not include firearms acquired at gun shows, by inheritance or through illegal channels. “As far as I know, no one has good numbers on the volume of guns moving” outside the purview of licensed dealers, Smith says, but it is certainly significant.

The decline in gun ownership also coincides with a decrease in the number of Americans who live in a household with at least one hunter. In 1977, 32 percent of respondents reported that they and/or their spouse hunted, while in 2014 only 15 percent said the same.  

Because the top two reasons people cite for purchasing guns are hunting and self-protection, Smith says, he attributes the “substantial decline” in households with guns and personal gun ownership to the decline in hunting and the decrease in violent crime rates since the 1990s.

Roughly 72 percent of those surveyed in 2014 said they would favor “a law which would require a person to obtain a police permit before he or she could buy a gun,” down from a high of 82 percent in 1998.

In response to the AP’s coverage, conservative news site Breitbart pointed out discrepancies between the GSS numbers and trends found by the Gallup Organization, and claimed that those behind the GSS have “pro-gun control leanings.”

The Gallup Organization found that 43 percent of respondents to a 2012 survey reported a gun in their home, the same percentage as in a 1972 survey (though the numbers fluctuated in the intervening years). Likewise, a 2014 National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action fact sheet estimates that 40 to 45 percent of households have firearms.

“The findings from this report are suspect and defy common sense," says Catherine Mortensen, a spokeswoman for the NRA, pointing to the discrepancy between the GSS findings and those of the Gallup surveys. 

According to the Pew Research Center, there is no definitive data source on gun ownership in the U.S., but Pew’s own findings echo those of the GSS.

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