Would You Tell A Stranger You Had A Gun?

| March 13, 2013

The Facts

The New York Times recently reported a four decade decline in gun ownership in the home, based on 2012 General Social Survey data released last Thursday.

The GSS survey indicates that 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. In 2012, the share of American households with guns was 34 percent.

Some have theorized that the generation-long decline should be attributed to not to declining gun ownership, but to privacy concerns.

In short, they say that individuals lied to pollsters about whether or not they had a gun in their home.

This is the “Would you tell a stranger on the phone you own a gun?” argument.

Possible, But Not Probable

While reasonable on the surface, this argument is unpersuasive for several reasons:

First, everyone in every state would have had to have lied to every pollster conducting every poll, phone-based or not. In the case of the General Social Survey, a full third of those surveyed would had to have lied to the pollster, over and above any that might have been lying in the first place.

But while the various polls may differ in terms of actual numbers, they tend to agree on the overall decline and resultant upsurge.

Secondarily, if polling numbers were under-reported, and based merely on increasing privacy concerns, fear of theft, or fear of government intrusion, then one would have expected the CDC’s firearm accident rate to have stayed relatively flat, and not fallen and then risen in relation to reported ownership numbers.

Which it did.

Demographics At Play

Third, many statisticians point to increasing urbanization and suburbanization during the same time period.

This is backed by numbers from the latest NBC/WSJ poll, which indicates that just 34 percent of those who live in cities said they own a gun, as opposed to rural respondents at 59 percent. Suburban owners split the difference at 41 percent.

Increase urbanization, and you decrease gun ownership. Rural areas, where gun ownership is the highest, are now home to about 17 percent of Americans, down from 27 percent in the 1970s.

Fourth, in 1973 the population of the US was 211.91 million. In 2012, it was 314.69 million, for a total increase of over 103 million people during the last 39 years.

This means that even if you discount the urbanization and suburbanization theory, the number of homes with guns merely had to stay relatively constant while overall population itself increased.

Children grew up, moved to the cities and suburbs and found they didn’t need weapons in the home. In fact, household gun ownership among Americans under the age of 30 fell to 23 percent this decade from 47 percent in the 1970s.

New owners may have bought guns for protection, hunting, or other reasons, but that’s also offset by the fact that an entire generation of gun owners had time to die off during the same 40-year period, in itself working to maintain the status quo.

Fifth, there’s another demographics card to play.

By race, whites own more guns than minorities. Referencing once again the NBC/WSJ poll, nearly half of whites (47 percent) said that they own a gun. Just one-in-five African Americans said so (20 percent) and just 28 percent of Hispanics.

With the white population in decline and with minority populations dramatically increasing, and with minorities much less likely to own firearms, the number of homes with guns would tend to decrease correspondingly.

Finally, a paper published in the Injury Prevention Journal found in 2004 that the majority (65%) of all weapons are owned by just 20% of gun owners.

Since ATF sales figures from 1986 to 2007 indicate that US firearm production basically kept pace with the annualized increase in population, it becomes statistically unlikely that every new gun produced during that time frame went to a new owner, or that even half of them did so.

Consequently, firearm ownership as a percentage of the population would have to fall.


Polling data, population data, demographics, firearm accident data, and firearm production data all tend to support a broad, generation-long reduction in firearm ownership. And manage to do so without resorting to claims of misrepresentation or outright falsehood by a significant percentage of those who responded to the various polls and surveys in question.

As such, the “stranger” argument falls more into the realm of rationalization and wishful thinking, and should not be viewed as a credible explanation of the results.


  1. GUNFAQ: Four Decade Decline In Gun Ownership?
  2. GUNFAQ: Gun Ownership Up One Percent In One Month
  3. Gallup Poll on Gun Ownership, 2011
  4. BATFE: Firearms Commerce In The United States (PDF)
  5. US Population by Year

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