WASHINGTON – The number of Americans who live in a household with at least one gun is lower than it's ever been, according to a major American trend survey that finds the decline in gun ownership is paralleled by a reduction in the number of Americans who hunt.
According to the latest General Social Survey, 32 percent of Americans either own a firearm themselves or live with someone who does, which ties a record low set in 2010. That's a significant decline since the late 1970s and early 1980s, when about half of Americans told researchers there was a gun in their household.
The General Social Survey is conducted by NORC, an independent research organization based at the University of Chicago, with money from the National Science Foundation. Because of its long-running and comprehensive set of questions about the demographics, behaviors and attitudes of the American public, it is a highly regarded source of data about social trends.
Data from the 2014 survey was released last week, and an analysis of its findings on gun ownership and attitudes toward gun permits was conducted by General Social Survey staff.
The drop in the number of Americans who own a gun or live in a household with one is probably linked to a decline in the popularity of hunting, from 32 percent who said they lived in a household with at least one hunter in 1977 to less than half that number saying so now.
That the number of households with at least one gun is declining doesn't necessarily mean that the number being purchased is on the decline. Data from the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check system shows that in recent years there's actually been an increase in the number of background checks being run, suggesting the total number of firearms being purchased is going up.
But those are concentrated in fewer hands than they were in the 1980s, the General Social Survey finds. The 2014 poll finds that 22 percent of Americans own a firearm, down from a high of 31 percent who said so in 1985.
The survey also finds a shrinking gender gap in personal firearm ownership as a result of a decline in the percentage of men who own one, from 50 percent in 1980 to 35 percent in 2014.
Fewer women than men own guns, but the percentage among women has held fairly steady since 1980, with 12 percent now saying they personally own a gun.
Only 14 percent of adults under age 35, but 31 percent of those over age 65, say they personally own a gun. That gap has increased over time — in 1980, younger adults were only slightly less likely than older ones to report that they owned a gun.
The poll finds half of Republicans live in households with at least one gun, which is twice as high as ownership among Democrats or independents.
People in higher-income households are significantly more likely than those in lower-income households to own a gun, the survey finds. Gun ownership rates also vary by race, with 4 in 10 white Americans living in households with a gun compared with less than 2 in 10 blacks and Hispanics.
Blacks and Hispanics are also more likely than whites to support requiring a permit to own a gun, although large majorities among all three groups support requiring a permit.
Support for requiring a gun permit climbed to a peak of 82 percent in the late 1990's, but has fallen since then. The 72 percent who support requiring a permit now is at its lowest level since 1987.
The General Social Survey is administered by NORC at the University of Chicago, primarily using in-person interviewing. The GSS started in 1972 and completed its 30th round in 2014. The typical sample size was 1,500 prior to 1994, but increased to 2,700-3,000 until 2008, and decreased to 2,000 for the most recent surveys. Resulting margins of error are between plus or minus 3.1 percentage points for the smaller sample sizes and plus or minus 2.2 percentage points for the larger sample sizes at the 95 percent confidence level. The 2014 survey was conducted March 31-Oct. 11, 2014, among 2,538 American adults. The GSS 1972-2014 Cumulative File was used to produce the statistics presented.
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