Part of the gun control advocates’ narrative includes the claim that the number of gun owners in the U.S. is falling. The obvious goal of this messaging campaign is to convince policymakers that they need not consider the rights or the democratic will of this supposedly diminishing portion of the population. A new study has revealed that survey data purporting to show the number of gun owners in the U.S. is of dubious value and is likely a severe undercount.
The study is titled, “Predicting potential underreporting of firearm ownership in a nationally representative sample,” and was published in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. According to the authors, the study “utilized demographic and intrapersonal variables to identify individuals who may have falsely denied firearm ownership and determined if individuals can be divided into meaningful subgroups.”
Summarizing the article for Reason magazine, J.D. Tucille explained that the researchers used data gleaned from known gun owners to build profiles of likely gun owners. Then,
they then applied the profiles across their sample of 3,500 respondents to estimate who was likely fibbing about not owning guns. The results depend on the probability threshold applied, but they came up with 1,206 confirmed owners, between 1,243 and 2,059 non-owners, and between 220 and 1,036 potential but secretive owners lying about their status.
These findings suggest that there could be between 18 to 86 percent more gun owners than is typically reported. The high end of the estimate would suggest an over 60 percent gun ownership rate.
The researchers acknowledged, “[t]he implications of false denials of firearms ownership are substantial," adding, “such practices would result in an underestimation of firearms ownership rates and diminish our capacity to test the association between firearm access and various firearm violence-related outcomes. Furthermore, such practices would skew our understanding of the demographics of firearm ownership.”
These findings will strike many gun owners as obvious.
A significant portion of gun owners jealously guard their privacy, and for good reason. Gun control advocates often demonize law-abiding gun owners and make clear their intent to confiscate firearms. Some anti-gun extremists have tried to publicly expose gun owners for exercising a Constitutional right. Gun rights supporters have worked for decades to prevent the federal and state governments from recording gun ownership data.
Economist John Lott contends that many Americans refuse to answer or do not answer truthfully when asked about whether they own a firearm. In a piece for Fox News, Lott noted “current events influence people’s willingness to acknowledge gun ownership. After mass shootings, a sudden drop can be seen in the polling numbers.”
Wake Forest Professor of Sociology David Yamane shares Lott’s belief that inaccurate polling systematically underestimates gun ownership. In a 2019 piece titled “Why Surveys Underestimate Gun Ownership Rates in the U.S.,” Yamane laid out the case for systematic underreporting and provided a bevy of reasons why gun owners would be reluctant to be truthful with pollsters. The professor noted, “My educated guess is that the underestimate is at least 10%, that 25% would not be an unreasonable amount, and more than 25% is likely.”
In part, Yamane cited the work of another academic, Iowa State Political Science Professor Robert Urbatsch. In a study published in the June 2019 Social Science Journal titled “Gun-shy: Refusal to answer questions about firearm ownership,” Urbatsch explored the unwillingness of Americans to answer survey questions about firearms ownership. The abstract explained,
In recent years, surveys in the United States have faced increasing refusal to answer questions about firearm ownership, even as other similar questions see no comparable up-tick in item nonresponse. Asymmetrical polarization, elite messaging, and changing media institutions all suggest that the surging nonresponse concerning gun-ownership questions may be increasingly concentrated among those with rightward political and partisan leanings, potentially skewing inferences about gun-related issues. Data from the General Social Survey confirms that the increase in probability of declining to answer firearm-ownership questions is particularly stark among those identifying as Republicans, particularly those with a conservative outlook skeptical of government.
Moreover, in 2015, Zogby Analytics conducted a poll that attempted to gauge if gun ownership is underestimated by surveys. Zogby asked respondents “If a national pollster asked you if you owned a firearm, would you determine to tell him or her the truth or would you feel it was none of their business?” The polling firm found “36% of Americans feel it is none of the pollster's business and that includes 35% of current gun owners 47% of Republicans and 42% of Independents.”
Even some of the more basic polling doesn’t support the diminishing gun owners narrative. Since 1959, Gallup has periodically asked Americans, “Do you have a gun in your home?” The number fluctuates a bit, but has typically been about just under half of households. For instance, in 1972, 43 percent of respondents answered that they did have a gun in the home. In 2022, 45 percent affirmed that they had a gun in the home. Adding credence to the theory that political factors may curtail acknowledgement of gun ownership, the lowest number for Gallup’s long-running poll was recorded one week after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting.
Another piece of data to consider is that the proportion of single-person households has increased at the same time Gallup’s “Do you have a gun in your home?” number has remained roughly constant. According to U.S. Census data, in 1970 17.6 percent of households were one-person. In 2020, that number was 27.6 percent.
Will this new study, added to the mountain of other evidence, convince gun control advocates to abandon their disingenuous arguments about gun ownership rates? Given their track record of promoting bogus survey results over the best available data, don’t hold your breath.