Now that the boys from Fairfax have decided to give Ollie North an opportunity to keep the discussion about gun violence at a level of religious righteousness that precludes the slightest degree of reality entering into the debate from their side, our friends at The Washington Post have decided to create their own version of reality by publishing the results of a national survey which finds that a majority of Americans believe that more people own guns than actually do own guns.
The Post claims that a ‘representative sample’ of more than 2,000 adults were asked the following question: “Out of every 100 people in the U.S., about how many do you think own a gun?” And the average answer was: 43 percent. The Post claims that this is a much higher number than either ‘gun-rights’ or ‘gun-control’ groups are willing to accept, although their source for the numeric favored by Gun-nut Nation happens to be Gallup which puts the gun-owning percentage right at 42%.
Trying to figure out how many Americans own guns is a game which has been played since the 1970’s, particularly following the first, major federal gun law passed in 1968. It was this law, GCA68, which ignited the public discussion about guns and spawned a cottage industry of survey-takers who have been trying ever since to figure out how many Americans own guns. Sometimes the surveys asks whether a gun is found within a particular residence, other times whether a particular individual within the residence owns a gun, sometimes the survey requests information on both.
When these surveys first started being published, there was a big hue and cry from the Gun-nut side that the numbers understated ownership because people were afraid to state in public that they owned guns. The funny thing is that when such cautions were raised about the truthfulness of gun-ownership answers, most surveys set the percentage of gun-owning families at 50% or more. Of late, nobody seems terribly concerned about disclosing the presence of guns, even though the gun-owning number has dropped to 40% or less.
Although the gun-rights and the gun-control groups still differ about how many guns and how many gun owners are floating around, what I find interesting is that both sides come down in lockstep on one basic point, namely, that what we believe to be the real number is presumed to represent only guns that are legally owned. After all, if a legal gun owner might be reluctant to publicly disclose his access to guns, someone who has an illegal gun lying around for sure isn’t about to spill the goods.
This might sound like a rather radical thing to say, but I have never felt comfortable with the distinction between ‘legal’ as opposed to ‘illegal’ guns. The implication is that people who own guns legally are somehow more responsible, whereas illegal gun owners are irresponsible or worse. After all, the definition of ‘responsible’ usually means that someone doesn’t break the law, so, by definition, anyone with an ‘illegal’ gun is already a law-breaker before he does anything good, bad or otherwise with the gun. Which allows the NRA to always refer to its members as ‘law-abiding’ gun owners, but also lets the GVP opposition chase after ‘responsible’ gun owners who will support ‘reasonable’ laws.
The NRA which prides itself on only attracting law-abiding citizens to its ranks is the same NRA that tells its members that the government has no right to determine whether they are, in fact, a law-abiding citizen when they attempt to buy a gun. By the same token, the gun violence prevention (GVP) movement is reluctant to go headlong against the ‘law-abiding’ argument because most of the people who allegedly own ‘illegal’ guns happen to be members of minority communities and the last thing the GVP wants is remind its constituency that a majority of the individuals who commit gun violence also happen to be from one of the minority groups.
In other words, it really doesn’t matter what the Washington Post survey found because the narratives used by both sides in the debate about gun violence have little to do with the truth.