I bought my first real gun when I was twelve years old, have maybe owned 300 to 400 guns since. Don’t ask me why I’m a gun nut, I just am. Now a report has been issued which, for the first time, attempts to quantify the size of the gun nut population, or what is called social gun culture. And based on a ‘nationally representative’ survey of 4,000 respondents, the number of gun nuts is roughly 14 million, which is based on what the survey believes to be 13.7% of the 100 million Americans who own guns.
Wowee – Kazowee!! Can there really be 14 million other gun nuts like me? If this were true, I’d have lots more gun shows to visit every weekend, lots more gun shops with guns I just have to own. The problem, however, is that I don’t think these numbers are true because I’m not persuaded that the survey questions which elicited the data are the questions that should have been asked.
To begin, the survey reports that 29.1% of the respondents answered ‘yes’ to one of six questions used as indicators to capture the number of people who own guns. One of the questions asked whether the respondent had attended a gun safety course; another asked whether the respondent advocated gun safety. I happen to live in the only state (MA) that requires a safety course prior to the purchase of any kind of gun, a majority of states require no course at all, so the response to this question from a ‘nationally representative’ sample is meaningless at best. As for advocating responsible gun ownership, 606 answered ‘yes’ and 3,394 answered ‘no.’ Since 1,200 respondents are presumed to own guns, does this mean that at least half of all gun owners would say they were against responsible ownership of guns? Give me a break.
As to the overall number of gun owners and, by extrapolation, the number of those owners who are gun nuts, again I don’t get the warm and fuzzies from the manner in which the research team analyzed the results. Again, the survey was based on a ‘nationally representative’ sample, so I have to assume that every respondent lived at a different address. Which means that the 29.1% who were identified in the survey as gun owners was really a count of households which contained guns, and not a count of individual gun owners themselves. If the survey counted gun-owning households, then the 29.1% figure would be similar to what other polls have recently found. And if 14% of these households contained one gun nut, then we are down to around 4 million of us gun nuts, which happens to be the official membership figure claimed by the NRA. And yes, I’m a Life Member of the NRA.
Don’t get me wrong. My criticisms of the report should not be taken as a lack of respect for the work and diligence of the research team which conducted the survey and analyzed its results. My concern, rather, is the degree to which the attempt to define gun culture and the behavior of gun owners may not reflect a clear understanding of what guns mean to the people who own guns, use guns and define themselves in terms of guns.
Want to figure out who likes guns? Ask how often someone has been in a gun shop over the past six months. Because people who make multiple trips to a gun shop really enjoy their guns. Dropping “the wife” off at Wal Mart and spending a half hour playing with guns is a much better indicator of gun culture than whether someone bases their opinion about someone else because the latter person does or doesn’t own guns.
If understanding gun culture, in the words of the report, is important for developing “prudent” gun policies, then you’re stepping on the NRA’s turf in a very big and direct way. So you better make sure that your information is fundamentally correct. In this respect, the new report falls a bit short.