The Campaign Spot

Look at the Fine Print on Guns-In-Households Statistics

As mentioned earlier, I’m in Pittsburgh for the annual National Rifle Association convention. Most of the political speakers appear tomorrow.

Over at the Huffington Post, Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence unveils this year’s new talking point, an argument that the perception of American gun ownership is vastly overstated:

At the NRA’s national convention in Pittsburgh this week, look for the speakers, presidential hopefuls and ardent supporters to rally around the fairy tale that America is a gun-loving country. But don’t believe it.

Gun ownership in the nation is at the lowest level ever recorded by the General Social Survey, according to an analysis issued Tuesday by theViolence Policy Center. The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago has been surveying the American public on gun ownership since the early 1970s. Far from representing the mainstream sentiment of Americans, the NRA’s gun-in-every-home-and-hollow mantra is resonating with fewer and fewer of us.

…In 2010, less than a third of households reported having a gun in the home. This is better than a 20-point drop from 1977, when 54 percent of households reported having guns.

For a moment, let’s presume that the data from the National Opinion Research Center is accurate.

The number of households in America in 1973, according to census data, was 68,251,000. According to NORC, 49.1 percent of them owned guns, and that brings us to 33,511,241 households with guns.

Now let’s compare that to today.  I’ve had a hard time finding a good count on the number of households in the U.S. in 2010. Back in the mid-1990s, the Census Bureau estimated it to be 114 million. However, the U.S. Census Bureau declared that it sent out forms to 120 million households in 2010; the census bureau director referred to making contact with “over 130 million households.”

Let’s begin with the mid-1990s low estimate of 114,825,428. Presuming that NORC’s figure that 32.3 percent of American households own guns, that brings us to 37,088,613 households.

If we’re closer to 120 million households, it’s 38,760,000 households with guns; if it’s 130 million households, it’s 41,900,000 households with guns.

So, sure, the gun-owning home percentage is shrinking, but the absolute number of gun-owning households is increasing. Over at the Huffington Post, Helmke writes, “Significantly fewer households and individuals now have guns,” which is just flat wrong, even using his own numbers.

Of course, I’m a little wary of the NORC methodology, particularly when you look at their results, year to year, listed on the Violence Policy Center’s press release.  In some years, the year-to-year percentages are pretty stable, but in others it changes dramatically in a way that should raise eyebrows. Are we really to believe that between 1976 and 1977, almost 5 percent of all American households went from non-gun-owning to gun-owning? That amounts to 3.1 million households. (Could Jimmy Carter’s election really be that ominous?)

And then the numbers get really weird in the late 1980s. In 1987, 48.6 percent of households own guns; the next year it suddenly drops by more than 5 percentage points to 43.4. (Put another way, in one year, 11 percent of gun-owning households threw away their firearms?) Then, the following year, it bounces back up to 48.9 percent.  What, in 1988, five percent of all American households – about 4.5 million of them – misplaced their guns, and then all of them found them the following year? Does this make sense to anyone?

The very last line of the Violence Policy Center release, listing potential causes for the decline their numbers show, is actually the most insightful, noting, “The increase in single-parent homes headed by women.”

Fewer women own guns than men, and obviously, minors do not own guns (the precise age depends on the state and whether the gun is a handgun or rifle). Single-parent homes headed by mothers are much more widespread now than in 1971 – and thus, our nation includes more non-gun-owning households.


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