The Demographics of Gun Ownership

Our national religion isn’t Christianity, it’s weaponry.

Growing up in the 1950s, we played with toy pistols and rifles made all the more realistic by caps. And why not? The TV shows we all watched were westerns—Lone Ranger, Rifleman, Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, and many more. Then there were all those war movies meant to resurrect World War II patriotism during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

My father served in WWII, So did my nine uncles. One died in the war. One was an avid hunter both before and after the war. None of the other seven ever touched a gun again. By the time I got to high school, I had lost any interest I might have bad in guns. Now I wonder, why are some people obsessed by guns, either for or against, and others not at all?

Legal Gun Ownership

Americans own more guns per capita than any other country, 1.2 guns for every individual. That’s more than Russia (0.12), China (0.04), North Korea (0.003), Iraq (0.20), Iran (0.07), and Afghanistan (0.12). Only about 0.3% of America’s guns are registered. Half of America’s 265 million guns are owned by just 3% of American adults.

In 2017, the Pew Research Center (PRC) surveyed 3,930 U.S. adults, randomly selected from prior PRC landline and cellphone surveys, on the topic of gun ownership. PRC found that:

  • Overall. 30% of American adults own a gun and another 11% live with someone who owns a gun. (For comparison, Gallup independently found that between 1996 and 2020, 29% of Americans own a gun and another 13% live with someone who owns a gun. Those are virtually identical results.)
  • Location. 16% of adults who live in the Northeast own a gun, as do 36% of adults in the South, 32% of adults in the Midwest, and 31% of adults in the West. 46% of those who live in rural areas, 28% of those who live in the suburbs, and 19% of those who live in urban areas own guns.
  • Firearm Characteristics. 66% of gun owners own more than 1 gun; 29% own 5 or more guns. 72% of gun owners own a handgun or pistol, 62% own a rifle, and 54% own a shotgun.
  • Owner Characteristics. 39% of men own a gun compared to 22% of women. 36% of whites, 24% of blacks, and 15% of Hispanics own a gun. 31% of gun owners have a high school diploma or less; 34% have some college education. 44% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents own a gun compared to 20% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. 44% of veterans own a firearm. There is no difference in gun ownership based on income level except for Americans who make less than $25,000/year who are less likely to own guns.
  • Owner Mindset. 73% of current gun owners can’t see themselves ever not owning a gun. 15% of those who own just 1 gun, 21% of those who own 2 to 4 guns, and 42% of those who own 5 or more guns say gun ownership is very important to their overall identity.
  • Ownership Rationale. 67% of current gun owners say protection is a major reason they own a gun, 38% say hunting, 30% say sport shooting, 13% say gun collection, and 8% say job requirements. Although two-thirds of current gun owners say protection is a major reason they own a gun, a study of crime victims during 2007-2011 found that the use of a gun for self-defense occurs in only 0.9% of interpersonal crimes. It was more common among males, in rural areas, away from home, against male offenders, and against offenders with a gun. It did not reduce the risk of victim injury; 4% were still injured.

Most gun owners don’t become interested in firearms casually. It is a passion that they develop early in life. 67% of current gun owners had guns in their household growing up. In contrast, 40% of non-gun owners grew up in a gun-owning household. 37% of gun owners were younger than 18 when they first got their own gun. 76% report that they first fired a gun before they were 18. Furthermore, 72% of gun owners grew up in a rural community compared to 52% who grew up in a small town, 37% who grew up in a suburb, and 39% who grew up in a city.

Nearly half of gun owners have only one or two guns but14% have between 8 and 140 guns. Their average is 17. Americans who own at least 17 firearms are sometimes “… dedicated collectors with special rooms to display their assortment of historic firearms. Others are firearms instructors, gunsmiths, or competitive shooters, who need a variety of firearms in the course of work or competition. Some gun owners have a survivalist streak, and believe in storing up weapons, as well as food and water, in case of a disaster scenario. Others simply picked up a handgun here, a shotgun or hunting rifle there, and somehow ended up with dozens.” Some Americans also inherit guns from their parents and grandparents. The ownership of so many guns by so few individuals is thought to be similar to patterns for just about any consumer collectible. There are, in fact, more than 120 gun collectors’ clubs across the United States.

I can appreciate this. I’m not a carpenter but I have more than 15 hammers—1 was my father’s, 3 are rock hammers I got in college, 3 are sledge hammers for gardening, 2 are mallets, a is a small hammer I use for crafting, and the rest are claw and ball peen hammers of various weights. Don’t even ask me about my screwdrivers.

So, a current gun owner might have lived in a rural area where he learned about guns from his family, neighbors, and friends. Gun ownership was part of his cultural identity that might have involved hunting, marksmanship, and family traditions. It’s no wonder that belief in gun rights is so deeply ingrained in some people, almost like a love infatuation or a religion.

At the same time, there are people who hate guns and campaign to control them more effectively. They may have been, or known someone who was, the victim of gun violence. They may be deeply affected by gun violence that is reported every day on the news, especially mass murders, serial killings, and school shootings. They might worry about their friends and relatives who may be exposed to gun violence because of where they live or work. They may just not like living in fear of other people who own guns, especially those in their own households and neighborhoods.

Fear breeds hysteria; hysteria breeds irrational behavior. It may cause an otherwise level-headed person to purchase a gun “for protection” despite evidence that guns are not useful for that purpose. It may cause some individuals to purchase more guns because they believe that the government will try to take their guns and their gun-rights away. It may cause a person to assemble an arsenal of military-grade weaponry as defense against a tyrannical government or societal dysfunction. It may cause people to demand that the government enact and enforce rigid gun controls even though the number of deaths attributable to firearms is small compared to the numbers of deaths attributable to drug overdoses and medical malpractice.

Illegal Gun Ownership

The information from PRC’s survey is quite revealing. The survey itself is intriguing, too. It is both statistically-sound and yet deficient. It thoroughly characterizes the ownership of LEGAL guns but doesn’t shed any light on the underworld of ILLEGAL weaponry. Those data are harder to come by.

In 1997 and 2004, the US Department of Justice conducted national surveys of state prison inmates that asked how they obtained the guns they used in their crimes. 52% of the inmates obtained the gun they used in their crime legally (39% from family or friends and 13% from commercial sources). 39% of the inmates obtained their gun illegally (23% off the street, 8% from the black market, and 8% by theft).

In the 13 states with the fewest restrictions on gun ownership, 40% of inmates illegally obtained the guns they used in their crime. In the other 37 states with more restrictive laws, 60% of the inmates obtained their gun illegally. Gun-control does appear to be associated with increased ownership of illegal guns.

For perspective, of the 98 mass-shootings in the U.S. that occurred between 1982 and February 2020, 84% involved weapons that were obtained legally and 16% involved guns that were obtained illegally.

The Religion of Weaponry

The culture-of-the-gun is much bigger than the 3 in 10 Americans who own a gun. It is part of our national identity.

The Military-Industrial-Complex runs our economy, just as President Eisenhower warned it would sixty years ago. The United States was the largest exporter of major arms from 2015-2019. Our country sold about 35% of all the world’s arms exports during that period Our weapon sales was 76% more than the next largest exporter, Russia. 70% of Americans believe that selling weapons to other countries makes the U.S. less safe, but U.S. businesses do it anyway. That’s capitalism.

Weaponry is a cult, both figuratively and literally. It has a system of beliefs relying on the interpretation of an ancient text, the Second Amendment. It has a charismatic leader in the NRA. It has a process of indoctrination through family traditions and peer pressure that is reinforced by organized (military and law enforcement) training.

Weaponry has a very small yet devoted group of followers who want to impose their beliefs on the rest of society. Followers do not tolerate opposing opinions or even critical inquiry. They are convinced that only their beliefs are true even when presented with contrary evidence.

Being members of what appears to be a cult, advocates of gun rights are often ostracized, humiliated, persecuted, and even prosecuted for their beliefs. This makes them even more entrenched in their beliefs and wary of what gun-control advocates, governments, and society might do to them. Their fear is as real as the fear of people who worry about gun violence.

Whether we like it or not, weaponry is the religion that rules us all. Until we learn to respect everybody’s beliefs, both for and against guns, we won’t live in a free country.

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