Updated, January 12, 2013
A person’s age can be thought of as summarizing two different sets of influences in our lives. One set derives from our position in the life-cycle as we move from young adulthood through middle age and beyond. These experiences should be rather similar no matter when someone is born. However different generations share different formative experiences, so we might expect that people born in a particular historical period also share common beliefs and patterns of behavior. These generational explanations rely on looking at date of birth, and not current age, when looking for patterns in survey data.
Disentangling the two factors is obviously impossible in just a single survey, but if we aggregate comparable surveys taken over many years we can separate out the effects of generational experiences and position in the life-cycle. As it turns out, the General Social Survey provides exactly the kind of data we need if we want to study how gun ownership has varied over time and across age groups.
I have followed the Pew Research Center’s definitions of American political generations to label four “cohorts” who became adults after World War II. Pew terms Americans who came of age between the War and the Kennedy Assassination the “Silent” generation. They are followed by the “Boomers,” who came of age between 1964 and 1982, then “Generation X” (1983-1998) and finally the “Millennials,” who reached adulthood at the turn of the twenty-first century or thereafter. To these groups I have added all Americans who came of age before 1946, which I call the “New Deal” generation since the Depression, FDR, and World War II were all significant influences on their adult lives.
In the table below I present the reported rate of household gun ownership for each of these five generations using the 33,154 respondents ever asked this question in the NORC General Social Survey since 1972. With so many interviews conducted over such a long span of time we can disentangle the separate effects of both generation and life-cycle on gun ownership patterns.
Looking first at the highlighted column we see that gun ownership has declined substantially in each generation following the Silents, half of whom reported living in a household with a gun. On average gun ownership has declined by about ten percent in every generation that came of age after 1963. Gun ownership reaches its nadir in the youngest generation with only one-in-five “Millennials” reporting that they live in a household with a gun present. If that trend continues over the next two generations, hardly any Americans coming of age in mid-century will choose to own a gun.
The right-hand side of the table shows how gun ownership varies over the course of the life cycle. We might expect people to purchase guns as they age and become more settled, so that the low rate of ownership among current 18-29 year-old Millennials may not persist into their later years. The GSS data provide no support for such a notion. Within each generation gun ownership rates remain essentially flat across all age groups with perhaps a slight decline after retirement age. That suggests the low rate of ownership among current Millennials should persist as they grow older.
As a validity check on these results, I compiled the same table for respondents to the 2010 General Social Survey. I have excluded people who were interviewed as part of the time-series study and are thus included in the table above. That leaves a separate sample of 2,857 people of whom 1,944 were asked the gun ownership question. Respondents in the three youngest cohorts report slightly higher rates of gun ownership than we found in the time-series data, but the differences are small and the pattern identical to what we observed using all respondents interviewed since 1972.