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Gun Ownership Is Probably Far More Widespread Than We Thought


Gun owners are not what you might call sharers. And, so, it’s always been difficult to gather good data on the number of firearm or firearm owners in the United States.

These days, anti-gun groups like to make the highly debatable claim that fewer Americans own guns, they just own more of them. The most-repeated guess is that there are around 400 million guns in American hands. Many rightly suspect that this is a significant underestimation. Whether it is 400 million or 500 million, there is no evidence of a noticeable decrease in gun-owning households.

As unreliable as polling is, it has remained remarkably consistent in one area. According to Gallup, gun ownership per household in 1961 was at 49 percent. By 1993, it was at 51 percent, despite numerous social changes, including a population movement from rural areas, the sharp decrease in hunting as the national pastime, and the proliferation of laws meant to inhibit ownership. In 2013, household ownership was at around 45 percent — fluctuating somewhere in the mid-40s for the next decade.

Is Gallup undercounting the overall percentage? Probably. A new study from New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center at Rutgers (h/t J.D. Tuccille) finds that a significant percentage of firearm owners “may not feel comfortable disclosing their ownership status.” The study maintains that many of those “identified as potentially falsely denying firearm ownership” are women living alone in urban environments.

This makes sense. I’m not sure how many people realize that the pandemic era saw the largest, and most diverse, spike in gun ownership in American history. Millions of Americans felt helpless in the face of rising crime and states that could (or would) not protect them. Around 5 percent of all Americans purchased a gun for the first time during the Covid pandemic. And those new gun owners, according to background checks, were far more diverse than previous gun buyers, with around 69 percent of first-time buyers being minorities and 85 percent being under 45 years old. Around half of all those new gun purchasers during that time were likely women.

As many gun owners reside in areas where the practice is viewed as anti-social and unsafe, it makes sense to see more false denials. Others, the study says, are nervous to admit they have guns because they believe the government is trying to restrict or take their firearms. They are correct.

The study largely frames the problem of underreporting as a roadblock to interacting with new gun owners and teaching them safety procedures. That seems to be a convenient way to sell the study to media. Because legal gun owners, notwithstanding cultural depictions of them as a bunch of reckless yahoos, are quite conscientious about safety.

So, please keep lying to pollsters about your guns. It’s none of their business.

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