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A Record Number of Gun Owners

NOVEMBER 18, 2015

Here is a clue for you budding social scientists- The answer you get depends on the question you ask. There are many ways to determine gun ownership in the United States. Each method involves assumptions. Each gives a different answer.

We could take a poll where we ask a few people if they own guns. Next we extrapolate our findings to the entire population. Based on that raw data from a recent general social survey, gun ownership might have fallen. We assume the poll accurately sampled gun owners. We also assume people answered the poll honestly. We can test that assumption by taking another poll where we ask the respondents if they would tell us the truth about owning a gun. It turns out that many of us won't tell strangers about owning a gun. There are good reasons to provide false answers saying we own a gun when we don't, and to say we don't own a gun when we do. We don't know how those biased answers changed with time. Are we more trusting or less trusting than we used to be?

A second way to estimate gun ownership is to look at the government forms that must be filled out when a gun is sold through a gun store. Most gun owners submit a background check form when they transfer a gun. We can look at the number of background checks each month and judge trends. That assumes that the fraction of new gun owners who go through a background check is consistent over time. Some firearms transfers do not require a background check in some states. Those transfers can include exchanges inside a family, and exchanges from person to person if the buyer and seller have already passed a background check and have their concealed carry license. We see a growing number of background checks conducted each month. There will probably be 2 million background checks next month. That implies more of us own guns than ever before.

The anti-rights groups who want to restrict gun ownership say the opposite. They say those two million guns all went to a declining number of gun owners.

It turns out we can test that claim too. Some states require extensive records each time a gun is sold. We see that the number of gun owners has increased sharply in those states. My colleague Dean Weingarten collected data from gun control states like Massachusetts and Illinois. In Massachusetts, the number of gun owners increased 66% in the last five years; In Illinois, the number has increased about 75%, from a little over 1 million in 2010, to 1.8 million in 2015. That data says more of us own guns than ever before.

Illinois and Massachusetts are states where gun ownership is heavily regulated and where the gun culture is actively suppressed. I assume gun ownership in the rest of the United States has grown even faster. We see more minorities owning guns. We also see a growing number of urban gun owners. In short, we see more gun owners in every segment of society. That is a good thing.
~_~_

Rob