As the age at which American adults ought to be able to buy firearms is being discussed in the wake of Buffalo and Uvalde, I want to point to some data on the age at which Americans actually get their first guns.
TL:DR (1) For respondents who say they currently or have ever owned a gun, the average age is 22. (2) Men acquire their first gun at age 19 and women at age 27, on average. (3) 37 percent of those who currently or have ever owned guns first got their own gun when they were under 18 years of age.
The data comes from the Pew Research Center’s 2017 report, America’s Complex Relationship With Guns. I doubt these numbers have shifted much in the past 5 years, but if you know of more recent data on this point, please let me know in the comments or by using the contact form or email me.
Whenever someone asks me, “Are you a golfer?” I offer a canned response: “No, but I play golf.” I resist the label golfer. To embrace it seems to heighten expectations in an uncomfortable way.
The same can be said of the label gun owner. Do I own guns? Yes. Is being a gun owner central to my identity? Not really.
In fact, the Pew Research Center’s 2017 report on “America’s Complex Relationship with Guns” highlights differences in the centrality of owning guns to people’s identities. About half of gun owners say being a gun owner is very (25%) or somewhat (25%) important to their overall identity, and half say it is not too important (30%) or not at all important (20%).
Source: Pew Research Center, “America’s Complex Relationship with Guns” (2017).
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%
The U.S. population breaks down roughly in thirds –
- Current Gun Owners: 27 to 33%
- Not Currently But Possible Gun Owners: 33 to 39%
- Not Now and Not Ever Gun Owners: 30 to 36%
Americans are politically divided by the issue of guns. But as with other “culture wars,” the fighting is often undertaken by elites, while the muddled masses watch from the sidelines, often with disbelief or revulsion at the true believers screaming past each other.