Youd think, reading news reports about people rushing out to buy assault rifles and stock up on ammo, that gun ownership is on the rise. But according to at least one survey, just the opposite is true.
If the survey is accurate and the National Rifle Association is skeptical it offers a fascinating contrast between reality and perception. Instead of a citizen militia busily stockpiling firearms, we may be a nation in which a large majority of people dont have a single gun in the house.
According to data from the General Social Survey, a public opinion survey conducted every two years by a research center at the University of Chicago, 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. Consider that, only about a third of U.S. households have guns.
And, equally surprisingly, the decline has occurred across the board. The rate has dropped in big cities and small towns, suburbs and rural areas, and in all regions of the country including the gun-loving South and West.
Gun ownership is down among households with children and those without children. Its down among rich and poor. Its down among churchgoers and non-worshippers alike.
Those who doubt the validity of the survey point to anecdotal evidence of increased gun sales, a rise in the number of background checks and long waits for gun-safety classes. But the researchers who conducted the survey have an answer for that: The people buying guns are the people who already have guns.
That category could include everyone from collectors to survivalists. Apparently, though, most Americans arent interested in assembling an arsenal in their homes.
We also have to assume that many of the people who said they had a gun in the house have only one or two firearms. They might have only granddads old double-barreled shotgun or pops Colt .45 from the war or the .22 rifle they got as a kid. And many, no doubt, are strictly hunters with only a rifle or a couple of shotguns.
But the most surprising statistic is that, despite warnings that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun, about 65 percent of American households are gun-free.
That is pertinent because it appears to indicate that the successful effort to stymie even minor restrictions in gun ownership is driven largely by the gun fanciers who own multiple guns. We might also extrapolate that these are the people who are most concerned that the government will try to take away their guns.
The question non-gun-owners should be asking is: Are those the people we want dominating the discussion about national gun policy?
The proposals being debated in Congress are reasonable and modest. Bills would expand background checks to cover sales at gun shows and other private transactions, and ban large ammo magazines for rifles.
The proposed ban on so-called assault rifes probably doesnt have a prayer. And, in truth, the primary difference between an assault rifle and other semi-automatic rifles is cosmetic.
But those who fear that any new restrictions or the reinstatement of old ones represent the first step down the slippery slope to gun confiscation manage to block even the reasonable changes.
Another question the non-gun-owning majority should be asking: Why do we let them?