Gun ownership is declining, so why is the gun lobby so powerful?

Last week, the General Social Survey reported that gun ownership has declined to a record low. About half of all American households owned at least one gun in the 1970s. In 2014, only 31 percent had a firearm.

The General Social Survey is considered the gold standard for polls. It’s based on face-to-face interviews going back four decades, conducted by the independent National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and funded by the National Science Foundation.

The numbers reflect a long-term trend. During the same period, the percentage of households with a hunter plummeted from 32 to 15 percent. Other important factors during these decades: the percentage of the population living in urban areas increased from 73 to 81 percent while the percentage of the U.S. that is non-Hispanic White declined from 83 to 63 percent. The last demographic is important because, while 39 percent of White households possess firearms, only 18 percent of Black and 15 percent of Hispanic households have them.

Age is also a factor. Today, 30 percent of Americans aged 65 or older own firearms while only 14 percent of adults under age 35 do—so the proportion of households with guns will continue to decline in the coming years, perhaps dramatically. (Survey details are here.)

At this point you might be wondering: Why does it seem the gun lobby is strengthening while their numbers are weakening?

First, consider that according to the Congressional Research Service (page 8), there were about 310 million civilian-owned firearms in the U.S. in 2009, and more than 8 million have been manufactured or imported annually since. Not many of these guns wear out each year. So, matching this trend with gun ownership figures, we have more and more guns in the hands of fewer and fewer people.

There are about 116 million households in America. Applying the 31 percent gun ownership rate, we find that about 36 million households own about 340 million guns (a conservative estimate), which comes to an average of more than nine guns per household. By itself, that’s pretty extraordinary. But like any activity, there is always a fairly small group that accounts for a disproportionate number.

We can get an idea of the number of households that own substantial arsenals of guns by examining data from a poll of gun owners conducted by Republican pollster Frank Luntz for Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

Question: “How many guns do you or does a member of your family own?”

Number                     NRA Member            Non-NRA

1 gun                        18%                           25%
2 guns                      16%                           20%
3-5 guns                  26%                           30%
6-9 guns                  17%                           15%
10 or more guns     24%                           11%

About 10 percent of gun owners belong to the NRA. You can do the math yourself. The numbers compute to this rough estimate: The owners of one-to-nine guns possess a total of about 110 million firearms. That means the “10 or more” respondents represent about 4.5 million households that own 230 million firearms—an average of more than 50 guns per household. And that’s just an average, which means some very large number (a million?) own more than 100 guns.

Our analysis leads to two conclusions:

(1) There is a tremendous need for background check laws to cover private sales. The number of potential private sellers with gigantic quantities of guns dwarfs licensed dealers. There are a few more than 50,000 retail gun stores in America. So, there are perhaps 50 private arsenal-owners for every licensed retail gun store.

(2) This is why the NRA is so extreme: The arsenal owners control it. Poll after poll shows that the NRA’s political positions do not in any way reflect the opinions of gun owners or even rank-and-file NRA members. The NRA is run by and for a group of people who have invested a huge amount of money, time and emotional energy in their gun collections. That takes them far outside the American mainstream but also makes them willing to fight so hard for unregulated guns that it seems completely irrational. But understand, to the arsenal owners, it isn’t.

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