Divergent Estimates in Gun Ownership Trends

Only two organizations have provided continuous estimates of the proportion of American households that own a gun over an extended period of time. One of the these is the well-known pollster, The Gallup Organization. Much less known among ordinary Americans, but quite well known and respected by academic researchers, is the General Social Survey conducted every other year by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

These two survey organizations use very different methods to compile their samples of American adults. Gallup relies on telephone interviewing while the General Social Survey interviews people in their homes.  Naturally the two organizations’ estimates of gun ownership rates have differed over the years, but they have diverged sharply since about 2000.

As this graph shows, the GSS data* show a consistent decline in gun ownership rates since the late 1970s.  At that time estimates from the GSS actually exceeded those reported by Gallup.  However, beginning in the mid-1980s Gallup reported higher ownership rates than the GSS, a difference which has persisted ever since.  Despite this divergence both organizations documented a fairly steep decline in household ownership rates during the 1990s.


Starting around 1990, though, the two organizations began reporting quite different rates of gun ownership, and since 2000 the GSS has consistently reported ownership rates some seven or more points lower than Gallup’s.  The graph below reports differences between the two organization’s estimates for years where both surveys are available.  Since the “expanded” question was not asked by Gallup until 1991, I have relied on the narrower item, “do you have a gun in your home,” without including people who reported having a gun stored in a location outside the home.  Including those data would increase the divergence in estimates between the two organizations.


It is difficult to find other estimates of gun ownership rates to which we might compare the figures from Gallup and NORC.  The only data from a Federal agency that I can find so far is one set of figures for 2001 from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System maintained by the Centers for Disease Control. In 2001 a question on gun ownership was inserted into that survey of nearly 202,000 respondents nationwide.  That BRFSS reports an overall gun ownership rate for the United States of 32% in 2001, essentially identical to the 33.4% average of the figures from the 2000 and 2002 GSS. In contrast Gallup reported a 40% figure for 2001. I am continuing to review data from other Federal agencies, but, under pressure from the National Rifle Association, Congress has restricted the ability of agencies like the Centers for Disease Control to conduct studies of gun violence.


*The GSS figures come from my tabulation of the combined 1972-2010 GSS dataset used in this earlier posting on generational trends in gun ownership rates. I have treated the small number of refusals as missing data and report the percentage of people who gave a yes or no answer to the question about the presence of a gun in the household.  My estimates differ slightly from the rates reported by a similar tabulation from the Violence Policy Center.  Their figures may be based on the full cross-sectional samples for each year, but the VPC report does not provide details on exactly which dataset(s) they employed. (Return)