How Many Members In The NRA? Depends Who’s Talking.

When the Pew Research Center released a detailed report on U.S. gun owners, I knew it wouldn’t be long until the organization which claims to represent all gun owners – the NRA – responded in kind. And the response appeared on the NRA-ILA website which tried to explain how and why Pew’s estimate that the NRA has 14 million members may have been wrong but was actually right.

NRA building             What Pew did was ask its survey panel, which they claim to be representative of a cross-section of Americans, to indicate whether or not they were members of the NRA. And then extrapolating the ‘yes’ answers against the percentage of Americans which Pew claims own guns, you wind up with 14 million people who say they have joined America’s ‘oldest civil rights organization,’ as the boys in Fairfax like to say.

Now since the NRA itself claims only to have 5 million members, how do we explain that all of a sudden the organization has added 9 million more to its membership rolls? Here’s how the NRA is handling it as of today: “we have millions more Americans who support us and will tell pollsters they are members, even when they are not.” And to underscore this point, the NRA website also linked to a story from The Washington Times (a real, balanced piece of journalism) which states that the Pew report shows that 21% of gun owners had contacted a public official about gun policy at some point in their lives, but only 12% of the nonowners said they did.

Now before everyone in the gun violence prevention (GVP) community gets all hot and bothered about a tidal wave of gun owners out there who are endlessly surging forward to defend their ownership of guns, let me inject a bit of reality into the NRA’s membership claims. In 2015 the organization claims to have received $165 million in dues, which happens to be $10 million less than what they picked up in their biggest year, which was 2013.  At the current rate of $40 a year, this works out to slightly more than 4 million members, although there are various multi-year deals which might alter those numbers somewhat.

The other way to estimate the NRA membership is to figure out the circulation of their four magazines – American Rifleman, American Hunter, Shooting Illustrated, America’s Freedom – one of which every dues-paying member receives. But if you take a look at their press kit, you’ll notice that the figure for American Rifleman of 5.5 million refers to ‘total audience,’ which is based not on circulation of the magazine, but on a survey conducted by a firm, GfK, which does consumer research about all kinds of things. In fact, this same company conducts surveys for Pew.

How many members does the NRA really have?  As many as they want to have as long as their numbers aren’t totally crazy or based on things they say which simply can’t be true. But if, according to Pew, 9% of gun owners contacted a public official this past year as opposed to 5% of nonowners, then what these numbers tell me is that, pace what the NRA is trumpeting about the political activism of their members, the numbers don’t show that at all.

Remember that Pew reported gun ownership as representing 30% of the adults who answered the poll. Which means that there are 73.5 million who own guns in the United States and 171.7 million who don’t. And if you do the math on the percentages of both groups who contacted a public official, the gun-owning group numbers 6.6 million but the non-owning political activists topped 8.6 mil.

I would be willing to bet that gun owners, by and large, probably reach out more frequently to lawmakers because the NRA has its communication strategies down pat. But if anyone believes that the playing field over gun rights hasn’t become more level since Sandy Hook, they better think again. The NRA is hardly moribund, that’s true, but the other side seems to be keeping pace.

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I’m Not Sure We Really Know Why People Own Guns

What concerns me about surveys which report on why Americans own guns, is the surveys all make the mistake of asking respondents who say they own a gun whether the gun is owned for hunting and sport shooting or for self-defense. And survey after survey claims that while in the olden days people owned guns for hunting and sport, now most guns are kept around for self-defense.

sales   I happen to think that such surveys don’t really tell us anything about why people own guns. Because people are much more complicated and if you ask them questions about how they think or how they behave, you need to give them ways to respond which will let them say what’s on their minds. The problem is that the people who usually create and conduct gun surveys aren’t for the most part people who own guns. And people who don’t own guns don’t usually have much contact with people who do. So what you end up getting in these surveys, like the recent survey conducted by Pew, are answers to questions that people creating the survey believe to be important but might not be important to the person who takes the survey at all.

I have been running some surveys through Survey Monkey and have so far received more than 1,100 responses from residents of 47 states. The surveys ask respondents to identify themselves either as gun violence prevention activists (GVP) or gun rights activists (GRA) advocates, and members of each group can take three surveys which cover: (1). basics demographics; (2). knowledge of gun laws; (3). facts about gun violence and guns. This is the first time that surveys will be published that generate data not from ‘average’ Americans who may or may not own guns, but from the people on both sides whose energies and activities create and sustain the gun debate.

Links to all surveys are here:

Survey #1 – GVP survey   GRA survey.

Survey #2 – GVP survey    GRA survey.

Survey #3 – GVP survey    GRA survey.

I have recently posted another survey which asks people to respond who not only own guns, but explain how they are really used. For example, the survey question about why people own a gun has four possible answers: (1). self-protection, (2). hunting and sport, (3). because I like it, and (4). I don’t know. Believe it or not, so far 85% of the gun owners who answered this question say they own a gun because they like owning a gun.

Another question asks respondents if they reload ammunition. So far, 25% of the responses have been ‘yes.’  This is a remarkable number because it is so high. I used to reload 9mm and 45. There was a sand pit about 5 minutes from my house; I could go out to the garage, run 50-100 rounds through my press in just a few minutes, grab my Colt 1911 or my Hi-Power, drive out to the pit, set up a couple of empty beer or soda cans and bang away.

Someone who reloads today is really into guns because there’s so much cheap, military surplus ammo around that who can be bothered to scavenge some lead, then scavenge brass, then run out and buy powder and primers when you can go down to the gun shop and buy 50 rounds for ten bucks or less? There may be a couple of real gun-nuts out there who reload because they want to carry the single, most accurate hunting round into field. But have you ever seen a gun survey that asked respondents whether or not they reload for theie guns?

My dearest friend and hunting buddy Sherrill Smith passed away last year at the age of 81. He was probably the best deer hunter and reloader in all of South Carolina, which in the Palmetto State is saying something mighty big. Sherill always carried a gun, usually two guns just to make sure. He was also a lifelong member of the NRA. If I had ever asked him why he carried those guns he would have shrugged and said, “Well Mike, I just like those guns.”

 

A New Survey Which Raises Issues We Need To Better Understand.

The Pew Research Center is often considered to be the authoritative source for figuring out what Americans think about a wide range of social, political and economic issues. Its survey findings are also used by many groups and organizations to help develop or shape their strategies for the kinds of public policies and the messaging about those policies that should be put forth into the public domain. In other words, when Pew says something about an issue like guns, people tend to listen. But the question has to be asked: what are they hearing?

pew            This week Pew published, with appropriate fanfare, a detailed survey on what Americans think about guns. The results come from a “nationally representative panel of randomly selected U.S. adults,” whose answers are then weighted appropriately to take into account gender, age, race, region and the usual statistical blah, blah, blah which survey machers claim will make what they tell you to be more or less true.

I not only read every word of this report multiple times, I also closely read the detailed reports on each topic where I often found very important results that did not make it up to the overall summary of the report.  Like they say, ‘the devil is in the details,’ and I therefore urge everyone who reads this document to get as granular as possible and read all the fine print.

The survey on which this report is based was conducted in April, which means that it was taken before the shooting of Scalise and the others last week. I suspect that if that same survey was conducted today that some of the attitudinal findings would be different on both sides, in particular respondent attitudes about regulating assault rifles and hi-cap mags

I’ll forego a discussion of the overall findings of this survey because that information will no doubt be broadcast here and there. I understand why pew ties so much of its survey findings (in this and every survey they conduct) to political leanings, votoing behavior and such. But probably 60% of all guns in the civilian arsenal can be found in 13 Confederate states, 3 border states and the rural parts of 4-5 midwestern states. Gee, what a surprise that the white residents in those places always, always vote resoundingly red. That’s new news?

There is, however, a remarkably interesting finding peeping out in the details covering gun-owning demographics, namely, that the percentage of people living in safe or unsafe neighborhoods who cited personal protection as the chief reason for having a gun was roughly the same. At the same time, nearly three-quarters of all gun owners who said that ‘the world’ was less safe cited personal protection as a reason for owning a gun, and nearly seven out of ten survey respondents, gun owners or not, said the world had become a less safe place.

These findings tell me that the spread of gun ownership and, in particular, the ownership of highly lethal but concealable handguns is not so much a function of people worrying about their personal safety, as it is about safety fears in a more general, almost generic sense.  I’m not saying that people who buy or walk around with a concealed weapon are necessarily a threat to themselves or anyone else.  On the other hand, don’t ask me how or why, but somehow an awful lot of those little guns get stolen or lost and wind up in the street.

If the gun violence prevention (GVP) community is looking for some messaging that will make people think twice before assuming they can protect themselves with a gun, they might think hard and long about the mentalities detailed above and ask themselves how to respond to a daily media bombardment which makes the average person feel unsafe in some general way because this so-called War on Terror just drags on and on.

Is America’s continued infatuation with guns a reaction to the age-old fears about ‘crime,’ or is it because we do not yet fully understand how and why we think about the risk of terror attacks?

 

Has The NRA Convinced Its Supporters That Gun Control Is A Slippery Slope? I’m Not So Sure.

The latest gun survey conducted by Pew was released on Thursday and it deserves to be studied closely by both sides.   The bad news is that the survey relies on one question – protection of gun rights versus more gun regulations – which many feel is too broad and too vague to explain much at all.  The good news, on the other hand, is that the survey has been asking the same question for more than twenty years and the responses are sliced and diced by age, gender, race, political leanings and just about everything else.

pew                The headline is that support for gun ‘rights,’ which was narrowly ahead of gun control, has now slipped slightly backward with 47% believing gun rights to be more important but 52% backing more control over guns.  The previous poll showed those numbers to be reversed but either way it’s more or less a dead heat. And while there’s no question that support for gun ‘rights’ has steadily increased in every demographic over the last twenty years, the only reason that the national argument over gun rights versus gun control splits 50-50 is because of the response to this question by white men above the age of 30 who live in the Midwest and the South.  Once we move to other parts of the country or look at women and minorities, both of whom the gun industry claims to be attracting in droves, support for gun rights becomes thinner and, in some respect, basically dissolves.

Hispanics, for example, were the only racial group that registered more than 75% support for gun control, with Blacks registering 72% and Whites coming in at 40%.  But while Hispanics and Blacks currently account for only 30% of the overall population, Hispanics in particular represent a demographic that is increasing and could soon constitute a majority in all the states that border the Rio Grande.  Currently these states are comfortably pro-gun in terms of culture and state laws, but if their Hispanic populations keep growing, majority support for gun rights in this section of the country will probably disappear.

The most important gap in attitudes towards guns involves gender, with women supporting gun controls 56% to 42%, while men support gun rights over gun controls by 52% to 45%.  These gaps have narrowed from fifteen years ago when women nearly three out of four women were more supportive of gun controls than of gun rights, but it is still a significant measure of difference in a country where women are increasingly heads of households or are making life-style financial decisions without depending on men.

In addition to the keynote rights versus controls question, the Pew survey, which gathered answers from 2,000 adults, also solicited a variety of answers to other questions of which one question in particular caught my eye.  Respondents were asked whether they were in favor of a “federal database to track gun sales,” with 70% answering ‘yes.’  But what surprised me in the responses to this question was not the fact that 85% of the people who claimed to be Democrats were in favor of national gun  registration  (which is exactly what this is) but so were 55% of the folks who claimed to be Republicans as well.

The NRA has been fighting against anything that smacks of a national gun registry since the first federal gun law was passed in 1968, yet a majority of people whom the NRA considers their bread-and-butter political supporters part company with them on this all-important issue. Republicans believe by more than 80% that the political power of the NRA is the right amount whereas 68% of Democrats think that the political power of the NRA is “too much.”  Yet these same Republicans do not believe that a national registry of gun sales constitutes a ‘slippery slope.’

If the gun-sense movement could find a way to communicate with and mobilize Republicans who claim to be unafraid of national gun registration, the NRA’s goose would be cooked.  That’s the real message from the latest Pew survey, make no mistake.