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Monday, March 11, 2013

Gun Sales are Up, But Gun Ownership is Down

Rifles in gun shop
It's enough to send a serious gun regulation backer into despair. The more often the words "gun control" appear in headlines, the more often we hear about a surge in gun sales. Since it's certain that no new gun regulations will result in the confiscation of firearms (rightwing lobbyists, talk radio hosts, and Washington demagogues are just lying when they start shrieking about "gun grabbers"), then rising gun sales would seem to mean that the effort to curb gun violence has resulted in more guns on the street, not fewer. It's at this point that you begin to wonder if you aren't just doing more harm than good.

But what the "Booming Gun Sales!" stories fail to cover is who it is who's buying all these guns and ammo. And it turns out that this is a pretty important question -- as a new poll demonstrates not by showing who's buying them, but who isn't.

New York Times:

The gun ownership rate has fallen across a broad cross section of households since the early 1970s, according to data from the General Social Survey, a public opinion survey conducted every two years that asks a sample of American adults if they have guns at home, among other questions.

The rate has dropped in cities large and small, in suburbs and rural areas and in all regions of the country. It has fallen among households with children, and among those without. It has declined for households that say they are very happy, and for those that say they are not. It is down among churchgoers and those who never sit in pews.

The household gun ownership rate has fallen from an average of 50 percent in the 1970s to 49 percent in the 1980s, 43 percent in the 1990s and 35 percent in the 2000s, according to the survey data, analyzed by The New York Times.


Guns sales are soaring, but gun ownership is plummeting. And the most likely explanation is that the people making all these new gun purchases are the same nuts who own a lot of the guns in the first place.

"There are all these claims that gun ownership is going through the roof," Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, told the Times. "But I suspect the increase in gun sales has been limited mostly to current gun owners. The most reputable surveys show a decline over time in the share of households with guns."

It's a lot harder than Hollywood makes it seem to use more than one firearm at a time, so the danger posed here isn't quite as serious as it would at first appear. Of course, more guns means more ammo capacity, but guns are also a lot heavier than movies would lead you to believe. You can't carry that many at once. At least, not for long or for very far.

The panic among people who seem to be addicted to firearms is almost understandable. After all, the day they outlawed cigarettes would probably be the day there were riots at convenience stores, as panicked smokers tried to buy as much of their fix as they possibly could. It wouldn't mean that a bunch of nonsmokers had suddenly decided it was time to take up smoking. It would just mean that smokers had suddenly started buying way more tobacco than normal.

But this also explains the panic in the gun lobby and why all of their defenses of guns are basically sales pitches. The messages aren't like, "Joe prefers the AR-15 for hunting, because it's lightweight and he likes the balance -- not because he's a homicidal maniac." They're like, "You don't have a gun? For the love of God, why? Don't you love your family? DO YOU WANT TO DIE!?" They're losing the marketing battle and they have been for years. The American public's attitude toward firearms is evolving and gun ownership is dropping. Other factors may be America's changing demographics, with a falling rural population and rising minority populations.

Tom W. Smith, director of the survey, said the data agrees with two emerging American trends, "the decline of hunting and a sharp drop in violent crime, which has made the argument for self-protection much less urgent," reports the Times. You could as easily argue that the decline in violent crime is driven by the decline in firearm ownership as you could the other way around. But I suppose more study is probably needed to determine which factor is the cart and which is the horse.

Whatever's going on here, firearms manufacturers, small arms dealers, and blood lobbyists have good reason to worry. This is all going the wrong way and it has been for quite a long time. Wayne LaPierre's fearmongering drives up gun sales, yes. But that's a spike, not a trend. And if it spikes again, it will spike amongst an even smaller segment of the population next time.

The battle to change attitudes about guns isn't just being won today. It's been fought and won over and over, quietly and without many noticing, since the 1970s.


[photo via bettyx1138]

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