The following is the fourth of a multi-part series by Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor at The American Prospect, on the National Rifle Association’s exaggerated role in American politics.
In the first three installments in this series (read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), I discussed the myth of the NRA’s power: how its money, endorsements, and vaunted organizing ability don’t provide anything like the electoral victories so many believe. In this final installment, I address the contemporary status of guns in America. For all the cultural weight and mythology about firearms, the truth is that gun ownership has undergone a long and steady decline. Demographic shifts suggest that in the future, that decline will only continue and perhaps accelerate. And as contentious as the gun issue often appears, there is widespread agreement that gun ownership can and should be limited in various ways. Though a majority of Americans believe in a broad right to own guns, they also support universal background checks, permit requirements, and measures to keep guns out of the hands of potentially dangerous people.
If you’ve been following the issue of guns over the last few years, you know that these have been good times for gun advocates. In a landmark 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court settled a longstanding question by declaring that the 2nd Amendment confers an individual right to own guns. Under Barack Obama’s administration, the only pieces of legislation on guns have expanded gun rights; for instance, gun owners are now allowed to bring firearms into national parks as a result of legislation Obama signed in 2009. The assault weapons ban passed under Bill Clinton expired in 2004, and despite early indications the Obama administration might try to renew it, they have made no moves to do so. Yet a few weeks ago, top National Rifle Association official Wayne LaPierre told the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference not to believe their eyes. “All that first term, lip service to gun owners is just part of a massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment during his second term,” LaPierre said, echoing comments he has made many times before. “All of what we know is good and right about America, all of it could be lost if Barack Obama is re-elected,” he added. “It’s all or nothing.”
LaPierre’s apocalyptic warnings may be absurd, but they serve a specific organizational purpose: to convince the NRA’s constituency that the issue is of the highest urgency, and only the NRA can stop the end of freedom. Some of the premises on which the NRA’s argument about the nature of America’s gun culture rests, however, are based on widely-held misconceptions. The NRA’s picture of America – a gun-loving nation where public opinion is firmly on their side and only a small cadre of elite liberals seeks to restrict unlimited gun rights – is entirely misleading.
There is no question that Americans own more guns, and use them more often to kill each other, than citizens of any other advanced Western democracy. As of 2007, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms reported that there were approximately 294 million guns in the United States, nearly one for every man, woman, and child in the country: 106 million handguns, 105 million rifles, and 83 million shotguns (these figures are discussed here). Though crime rates in general have been on a steady decline since the mid-1990s, according to the CDC more than 10,000 Americans are still murdered every year with firearms; add in suicides and accidental deaths, and the number exceeds 30,000.
Nevertheless, these statistics obscure a trend that has gone largely unnoticed: fewer and fewer Americans own guns. Data from the General Social Survey show that rates of gun ownership have been decreasing steadily for three decades. In 1977, 54 percent of American adults lived in a household that contained a gun. By 2010, that figure had declined a full 22 percentage points to 32 percent.
The explanations for this drop vary; a declining interest in hunting and the steady exodus from rural areas to suburbs and cities almost certainly play a role. Whatever the combination of causes, there have been steady declines in gun ownership among all age groups. Of particular note is the decline among young adults. In the GSS studies in the 1970s, around 45 percent of respondents under 30 years of age reported that their household owned a gun; in the most recent surveys that number has fallen below 20 percent, a decline of more than half. The decline has also occurred among all birth cohorts.
Barring a wholesale return to rural living or a boom in hunting, it seems unlikely that this trend will reverse. Demographic diversity will also likely contribute to a continued decline in gun ownership. White males own guns at higher rates than members of other groups, while gun ownership among African-Americans is lower, and ownership among Latinos and Asians is lower still. Every projection by demographers shows whites declining as a proportion of the American population in the next few decades, and Latinos are now the country’s largest and fastest-growing minority group. These factors will likely produce a continued, if not accelerated, decline in gun ownership.
An Emerging Consensus In Public Opinion
The drop in gun ownership notwithstanding, gun advocates have been encouraged by the fact that polling has recently shown a decline in the number of Americans expressing a general interest in restrictions on guns. For instance, in early 2011 when the Pew Research Center asked respondents whether it was more important “to protect the right of Americans to own guns, or to control gun ownership,” 48 percent said the former, and 47 percent said the latter. This was a significant change from earlier years; in 1999, the same question found 65 percent saying it was more important to control gun ownership and 30 percent said it was more important to protect Americans’ right to own guns. Other polls have found similar results when they asked similar questions; for instance, between 1999 and 2011 the ABC News/Washington Post poll found the percentage of respondents saying they favored “stricter gun control laws in this country” fell from 67 percent to 52 percent.
These results might appear to validate the NRA’s belief that Americans are broadly opposed to measures to restrict gun sales and ownership, or at the very least that the country is closely divided on the question. However, over the same period there has not been a decline in support for most of the specific measures that are often proposed to restrict gun sales. Unfortunately, most of these questions are not asked continuously, as the general questions about “gun control” are. Pollsters tend to ask about specific measures when they are being debated, then stop asking once the proposal is no longer in the news. But there are many results suggesting that support for the most commonly proposed measures is unchanged. For instance, the CBS/New York Times poll in January 2011 found 63 percent of respondents favoring a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons, almost unchanged from the 67 percent that favored such a ban in March 2000 (and even a majority of gun owners favored an assault weapons ban). A detailed CNN poll on guns in 2008 found two-thirds of Americans believing the Second Amendment guaranteed an individual right to own guns, but also found 86 percent supporting waiting periods, 79 percent supporting registration of guns with local government, and 51 percent even supporting limits on the number of guns a person can own – an idea that is rarely suggested anywhere and could be described as almost radical.
One specific question that has been asked repeatedly – by the General Social Survey, on whether people support a requirement that every gun owner obtain a permit from the police – has shown virtually no change in almost 40 years. Support for gun permits has remained over 70 percent for that entire period; in 2010, it was 74.3 percent.
Some polling has shown gun owners and even NRA members themselves to be open to certain types of restrictions. For instance, a 2009 survey by Republican pollster Frank Luntz found 85 percent of all gun owners and 69 percent of NRA members supporting mandatory background checks at gun shows. Though the NRA has opposed efforts to prevent anyone on the FBI’s terrorist watch list from purchasing a gun, 86 percent of gun owners and 82 percent of NRA members said that those on the list should be banned from purchasing guns.
All these polling data can paint a complex picture, but the clearest overarching conclusion is that Americans believe that a right to bear arms exists, but that there are many ways that right may be limited. This position is at odds with the near-absolutist stance taken by the NRA. Consequently, future debates over guns should and probably will be over which restrictions are reasonable, not over whether any restrictions at all are allowed.
One of the main objectives of the NRA – and something they do very well – is to keep the salience of the gun issue high among those sympathetic to their cause. The NRA continually tells its supporters that draconian restrictions on gun ownership among law-abiding people are just around the corner, entreaties that become almost comical at times. With fewer gun owners but no fewer guns, gun ownership is increasingly the province of a “hard core” of owners who own more guns and have been successfully politicized (to a degree, at least) by the NRA. But with each passing year, the group’s claim to represent the beliefs and habits of most Americans travels further and further from reality.
And as the previous installments in this series demonstrated, the NRA’s vaunted power to determine which politicians win and lose at the ballot box is a myth, one that the group and its allies work hard to sustain. If more legislators understood that fact, it would become more likely that future debates about guns reflect Americans actual habits and beliefs.