Millennials and Guns Updated

Just about a year ago I wrote here about the decline in gun ownership among those Americans who have come of age since the Kennedy Administration. Starting with the “Boomers,” rates of gun ownership by household have fallen by about ten percent each generation. Among those born since the turn of the 21st Century, the “Millennials,” only 19% reported living in a household with a gun present.

Those results were based on the responses to the General Society Survey, which has been conducted periodically by the National Opinion Research Center since 1972. My earlier results were based on the combined surveys from 1972 through 2010. Now that the 2012 installment is available, I have reproduced the results of my earlier analysis with those respondents included. The entries report the percentage of households with a gun present for each combination of generational cohort and age when interviewed.

gunownership-update

The new data gives us the ability to estimate the ownership rate for two groups not present in the 2010 sample, but the size of each sample is fairly small. Boomers now reaching retirement age show a higher rate of gun ownership than younger people in the same cohort, but that 50% for the oldest Boomers is based on just 34 people and is not statistically reliable. A chi-squared test of ownership against age group among Boomers does not reach significance.

More disturbing perhaps is the reported 28% rate of ownership among the 53 Millennials just now reaching their thirties. That figure is eight points higher than the rate for younger Millennials, but again the difference between the age groups does not meet the usual criteria for statistical significance (p < 0.20). Still if we see continue to see increasing ownership rates among Millennials as they age, my earlier rejection of a role for life-cycle factors in the decision to own a gun may have been premature.

Since all the over-29 Millennials were interviewed in 2012, their higher rate of ownership could be the result of historical events that took place between 2010 and 2012. Evidence from sources like Gallup suggest that household ownership rates spiked in 2011 after years of stagnation. FBI records of the number of background checks performed show a similar spike in purchases that year. Breaking out the rates of ownership by year of interview in the GSS shows some corroboration for those trends.
age_trends_2008-2012The reported rate of ownership in 2012 for the country as whole hovered in the mid-thirties during the Obama years. Ownership estimates for the oldest cohorts declined sharply in 2010 then rebounded in 2012. For the “New Deal” cohort, aged 83 or older in 2010, these fluctuations can be attributed to small sample sizes. That is a less plausible explanation for the “Silents” (aged 65-82 in 2010); their samples each year ranged from 196 in 2008 to 144 in 2012. I have no explanation for the variation among these older Americans.

More striking is the consistent increase in household gun ownership rates among the Millennial generation, rising from 17% in 2008 to 25% four years later. With a sample of 243 people in 2008 and 310 people in 2012, this eight percent increase in gun exposure is “statistically significant” at the 0.02 level. Future posts will look more deeply into the reasons for this rise in gun exposure.

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.

ownership-trends-compared

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.

gss-gallup-gap

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)

Millennials “just say no” to guns

Updated with 2012 Data

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.

generations-and-gun-main

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.

generations-and-guns-2010xs

Patterns of Gun Ownership in the United States

The events in Newtown, Connecticut, give us all pause.  It has led me to examining data on gun ownership beginning with the 2010 General Social Survey conducted every other year by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.  In all some 3,207 respondents were asked in 2010 whether they owned a gun, and if so, whether they owned a rifle, shotgun or a “pistol”. I will use the more-common term “handgun” for “pistol.”

Let us begin with some basic information on patterns of gun ownership.  Many surveys like Gallup report figures for “gun” ownership without differentiating among the various kinds of guns people possess.  We might imagine a group of “sportsmen” who own rifles and shotguns but not handguns.  There are also people who own only a handgun,  people who own both handguns and long guns, and people who own no guns at all.

Two-thirds of the households report owning no guns at all.   Only six percent of Americans, or 18% of gun owners, possess just a handgun. Eleven percent of households own only a long gun, with preferences about equal for either a rifle or a shotgun or both.  A majority of handgun owners also have both a rifle and a shotgun in their possession.   Here is a reorganized version of the data above that divides American households into three categories — people who own only long guns, people who own only handguns, and people who own both.

About a fifth of American households own a handgun while a quarter own a rifle or shotgun.  Only three out of ten handgun owners do not also own a long gun.  The reverse combination is more common; 44% of long gun owners do not own a handgun.