No one knows what percentage of the U.S. population actually owns guns. As with religion, the federal government does not keep official records or collect statistics on gun ownership. So we depend on surveys conducted by organizations like the Gallup Poll, Pew Research Center, NORC/General Social Survey, and others.
Those surveys often produce different estimates of gun ownership rates. Consider data from questions about whether respondents live in a household in which someone (not necessarily themselves) owns a gun (including the margin of error):
Pew Research Center (2017): 39-45% household gun ownership
Gallup Poll (2018): 39-47%
Monmouth University (2018): 43-49%
NORC/General Social Survey (2016): 29-35%
Similar differences are evident if we look at personal gun ownership rates. These surveys ask not only if someone in the respondent’s household owns a gun, but also whether they personally do (including the margin of error):
Monmouth University (2018): 31-37%
NORC/General Social Survey (2016): 17-23%
How do we explain why the NORC/General Social Survey produces estimates of personal and household gun ownership that are substantially lower than other surveys?
A major culprit is that the General Social Survey is conducted face-to-face in people’s homes, while most other surveys are conducted over the phone or online.* Many people, even those who do not wear tin hats, will not tell a stranger in their home that they own guns. It is easier to admit that one owns guns to a stranger you are not speaking to face-to-face.** Therefore, I think the estimates of Pew, Gallup, and Monmouth are closer to reality than NORC/GSS.
So, if anyone ever asks you how many gun owners there are in America, you can tell them AT LEAST:
40% of households in America have guns in them
30% of individuals in America own a gun
In a following post I will also explain why saying AT LEAST is crucial here, because these figures underestimate the actual rate of gun ownership in the United States.
*I do not take this to be a blanket indictment of the General Social Survey. I have used GSS data for 25 years, including for an article I published on religion and gun ownership. No data is perfect. But this systematic under-representation of gun ownership in the GSS is significant because their low rate of ownership is often used politically to suggest that gun owners are a small and hence marginal demographic in American society.
**I say “admit” here because I have seen the way some people talk about gun owners, especially when they don’t think gun owners are around them. I have been in many situations in which I would never admit to being a gun owner for fear of being on the receiving end of others’ scorn. The stigma is real and is actively promoted by those who want to make gun ownership culturally unacceptable like other “vices” (smoking, drinking and driving).