Harvard Study: More Guns in More Hands, and More Women Shooters

A Woman Takes Aim During Women Armed and Ready Range Session

A Woman Takes Aim During Women Armed and Ready Range Session (Photo by Liz Dufour)

There’s a new Harvard/Northeastern study that’s all over my news feeds, and it confirms pretty much what anyone paying attention already knows:

1. America has more guns in more hands than ever before.
2. Women shooters are on the rise.
3. The vast majority of gun owners are handgun owners and only have one or two handguns.
4. Most gun owners have guns for personal protection, not hunting.

I want to take each of these in turn because they’re all important.

More Guns, More Owners

First, the original headline of this big Guardian piece on the study advertised ‘more guns in fewer hands’ as the result of the study. I reached out to the author on Twitter about it because this statement is factually incorrect, and they’ve corrected it. Here’s what’s going on.

The study shows a decline in gun ownership from 25% to 22% since 1994, so the rate of gun ownership has indeed gone down slightly. But “fewer hands”? Not when you factor in population growth. The US population has gone from 263 million in ’94 to a present of about 313 million, which means that the absolute number of gun owners has risen by a few million. So no, there are not “more guns in fewer hands,” but “more guns in more hands.”

It’s also worth noting just how much this survey differs from the General Social Survey that’s cited by the Violence Policy Center to show a double-digit decline in gun ownership percentages in the past few decades. The General Social Survey is an outlier, and the Gallup survey of gun owners is a lot closer to the Harvard/Northeastern study numbers.

In general, whenever you see anyone claiming that there are fewer gun owners in America today than there were at some point in the past, that person is wrong. At some point the media will figure out that you have to factor in population growth, and we’ll stop seeing these “fewer gun owners” headlines.

Women Shooters

The NRA and NSSF have been claiming for a while now that women are the fastest-growing demographic of gun owners, and the media has been trying to push back on this claim. Unfortunately for the media, the new study backs up the NRA.

The percentage of women who say they own guns has increased slightly from 9% in a 1994 survey to 12% today, but researchers said the increase was not meaningful. Since the 1980s, female gun ownership has fluctuated between 9% and 14% in annual surveys.

Again, when you factor in population growth, you get a pretty sizable increase in the absolute number of women gun owners. The study puts this increase at 10 million. That’s a lot of new shooters, and clearly if it weren’t for women buying guns we’d be seeing a much larger decline in gun ownership rates.

Specifically, the study finds that the number of men who own guns has dropped from 42% to 32%, a full ten percentage points, since 1994, so the gun industry has women to thank for most of the absolute increase in gun ownership.

Super Owners

Many of the headlines around this study focus on “super owners,” the 3% of gun owners who own almost half the guns:

Then there are America’s gun super-owners – an estimated 7.7 million Americans who own between eight and 140 guns.

This kind of concentrated ownership isn’t unique to guns, firearms researchers noted. Marketing experts suggest that the most devoted 20% consumers will typically account for 80% of a product’s sales.

I always knew I was super. I bet you did, too.

On a more serious note, though, my theory is that we can thank the rise of the plastic fantastic striker-fired pistol and the concomitant drop in the price of what counts as a “quality pistol” for a lot of the “super ownership” out there.

In inflation-adjusted terms, it’s cheaper to buy a Glock 19 today than it was to buy a Smith & Wesson in 1970. Sure, some guns hold their value pretty well, but in many areas of the market, access to quality firearms has become a cheaper proposition.

Two-legged Targets vs. Four-legged Targets

The new study is in line with the other surveys recently that show the declining importance of hunting in gun purchases and the rising importance of self defense.

There’s so much I could write about this. It’s not just about the turn toward the “tactical” in American gear culture or media-fueled post-9/11 fear, though those things are a factor. But the real force behind the decline of hunting as the main reason for gun ownership is the one I keep referencing throughout this article: population growth.

Population growth has gutted hunting in most areas of the country. I know that when I go back to my family’s acreage in the middle-of-nowhere Louisiana, there are neighbors on both sides of our 40-acre lot. All of that used to be woods, and we hunted in it, but now it’s clear-cut and there are houses with nice trucks parked out front.

I’ve thought about getting a hunting lease here in Texas, but the idea of spending years studying and learning the ins and outs of wildlife behavior on a piece of property that I don’t own and can’t hand down to my kids just doesn’t have as much appeal to me, and I know I’m not alone.

A big part of the reason I hunted was because I enjoyed spending time up-close-and-personal with our family land, where my dad and uncles and grandfather and great-uncles had all hunted. The knowledge of how to hunt that property (and the neighboring properties with permission) was handed down to my cousins and I, and using that knowledge and adding to it was just as big a deal as bringing some meat back into camp.

All of that is gone for me now, and currently my “hunting” involves going out to someone else’s lease and shooting at critters who, most of the time, have been baited with feeders and plots.

I’m not knocking leases, of course. Thank God for those, or else most of us would have no place to hunt at all. I’m just saying that it’s not the same as it was, and the numbers reflect that reality.


I want more stuff like this!

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