The New York Times cites the General Social Survey to claim that the gun ownership rate is low and falling.
It is an impressive drop, and many have used it to claim that while gun sales have increased, the increase has taken the form of more guns being owned by a smaller and smaller number of people. In a July 31 article, CNN stated it this way:
A decreasing number of American gun owners own two-thirds of the nation’s guns and as many as one-third of the guns on the planet — even though they account for less than 1% of the world’s population, according to a CNN analysis of gun ownership data.
The data, collected by the Injury Prevention Journal, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the General Social Survey and population figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, found that the number of U.S. households with guns has declined, but current gun owners are gathering more guns. . . .
Yet, the GSS survey shows a large drop that you don’t see in many other surveys. According to Gallup, in October 2011, they wrote: “At 47%, reported gun ownership is the highest it has been in nearly two decades — a finding that may be related to Americans’ dampened support for gun-control laws.” Here is the Gallup survey data since 1991.
Or take the ABC News/Washington Post Poll
Surveys always have problems with them, but in many cases surveys are the only way to determine gun ownership rates. One measure is to look at licensed gun owners, though there have only been a few states that have licenses and haven’t changed the rules for getting the permits. Most notable is the state of Illinois. Over the last six years the GSS survey implies that legal gun ownership has fallen in Illinois, but FOID cards, which are necessary to legally own a gun, have been rising.
Whereas a few years ago, 1.2 million Illinoisans held Firearm Owners Identification cards, the number has jumped to 1.6 million, state police spokeswoman Monique Bond said. Soon after the court decreed in December that Illinois couldn’t ban public carry anymore, demand for FOID cards jumped precipitously. In January alone, Bond reported, there were 61,000 FOID applications, nearly double the 31,000 in January 2012. . . .
The 1.2 million FOID card holders appear to be true for 2009. From the Illinois State Police we have these data:
The number of concealed handgun permits also provide some information, with the number of permits increasing from about 4.6 million in 2007 to well over 9.3 million at the beginning of 2013.
The GSS survey has raised concerns for some time. Here is something that John Lott wrote in his 2003 book The Bias Against Guns.
A few years ago, while I was doing research at the University of Chicago, I had lunch with Tom Smith, who is the director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center (NORC). This private organization conducts many important national surveys for the government as well as other clients. During lunch Tom mentioned how important he thought the General Social Survey was. He felt the large drop in gun ownership implied by his survey would “make it easier for politicians to do the right thing on guns” and pass more restrictive regulations. His surveys have traditionally shown one of the lowest gun ownership rates among any of the surveys: for example, almost 20 percentage points lower than recent polling by John Zogby. . . .
Tom Smith is still the director of the GSS. It is interesting to note that both the JAMA study this week as well as Tom Smith have received funding from the Joyce Foundation, which is well known for its gun control advocacy (or see here). This discussion is definitely not saying that the Joyce Foundation funding altered their views, but just that Joyce knows the individuals who are on their side of the debate.
Interesting side note: Taxes and fees on gun ownership are associated with big differences in gun ownership with income (Chicago and DC are obvious examples). By contrast, for the wide income range going from $33,000 to $75,000 and those above $75,000, Gallup indicates that the gun ownership rates for the country as a whole are identical.
UPDATE: Gallup claims that household ownership of guns in 2014 stands at 42 percent.