Who Owns a Handgun?

 

 

Just as the role of the firearm in America's past has been dramatically inflated, the handgun's supposed hammerlock on contemporary American culture and politics is also exaggerated. This was shown in 1994 when the Police Foundation, with funding from the U.S. Department of Justice, conducted the National Survey of the Private Ownership of Firearms (NSPOF),

the most comprehensive survey to date specifically designed to gauge the size and extent of America's "domestic arsenal."1 The study was authored by Philip Cook of Duke University and Jens Ludwig of Georgetown University. Published in 1996 as Guns in America, the study found that, contrary to popular perception, of the 192 million guns in American hands, far and away most are rifles or shotguns: totaling 119 million (70 million rifles and 49 million shotguns).

Handguns, at 65 million, represent only a third of the nation's firearms population. The upsurge in our handgun supply over the past few decades is reflected in the fact that the vast majority of handguns—80 percent—have been acquired since 1974. Although our nation's gun larder is amply stocked to ensure that every American adult who wants a gun can have one, most don't. Nearly two thirds of American homes are gun free, and three quarters of American adults don't own a gun. Among the minority who do own guns, there is a tendency to own more than one. Approximately 10 percent of the nation's adults own 77 percent of the country's guns.2

The NSPOF found that only one out of six Americans currently owns a handgun. Nearly 26 percent of U.S. males own a handgun, but only 6.6 percent of U.S. females.3 

Handgun owners tend to be white, conservative, between the ages of 40 and 64, divorced, and living in rural America.4 Those with some college education are more likely to own a handgun than those without, and those with higher incomes are more likely to own a handgun than those with lower incomes.5

A 1999 survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago offered another reliable data source on handgun ownership.

The study, Attitudes Towards and Experiences with Guns: A State-Level Perspective6 posed its interview questions differently than the NSPOF and came up with numbers more reflective of totalhouseholds containing handguns as opposed to individual owners. The responses to "Do you happen to have in your home, car, or garage, any guns? Are any of them handguns?" reveal that about one out of four American homes (24.8 percent) contains a handgun. The NORC survey also gives breakouts of handgun ownership using the nine Census Bureau regions which show that, for once, common wisdom holds true in that handguns are indeed most common in the South and West and least common in New England and the Middle Atlantic states.7 

The divergence among the regions is most dramatically illustrated in comparing the Middle Atlantic Region (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania), where handguns are found in only 14.8 percent of households, with the East South Central states (Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama) where 40.0 percent of homes contain handguns.

The minority of Americans who own guns have managed to hold the non-gun owning majority hostage.

According to the NORC survey numbers, far more Americans favor a ban on handguns (36.6 percent) than own handguns (24.8 percent).

This ratio grows even wider in specific regions, such as New York State where 58.8 percent support a handgun ban while only 10.9 percent report having a handgun in the home—a more than five to one ratio. Also, New England shows 46.5 percent backing a handgun ban and only 16.5 percent of households containing a handgun. Perhaps more significantly, in California, our most populous state and a bellwether for political trends, the 36.9 percent of the voters who want a handgun ban considerably outnumber the 22.6 percent who live with access to a handgun. [See charts below]


Gun Ownership by Type Compared to Support for a Handgun Ban

Region Handgun Only Both Handgun and Long Gun Total Handgun Support for Handgun Ban
United States 6.1 18.7 24.8 36.6
New England (CT, MA, ME, NH, RI, VT) 3.8 12.7 16.5 46.5
Middle Atlantic (NY, NJ, PA) 3.5 11.3 14.8 51.0
East North Central (IL, IN, MI, OH, WI) 4.3 15.8 20.1 40.2
West North Central (IA, KS, MN, MO, ND, NE, SD) 3.4 18.0 21.4 28.9
South Atlantic (DC, DE, FL, GA, MD, NC, SC, VA, WV) 7.6 20.4 28.0 35.3
East South Central (AL, KY, MS, TN) 11.6 28.4 40.0 27.1
West South Central (AR, LA, OK, TX) 7.1 26.4 33.5 29.3
Mountain (AZ, CO, ID, MT, NM, NV, UT, WY) 6.7 26.5 33.2 28.9
Pacific (AK, CA, HI, OR, WA) 7.2 16.4 23.6 33.9


State Handgun Only Both Handgun and Long Gun Total Handgun Support for Handgun Ban
California 7.0 15.6 22.6 36.9
New York 2.7 8.2 10.9 58.8
Pennsylvania 4.2 16.3 20.5 36.9
Texas 7.3 22.3 29.6 31.4


The NORC figures spotlight a key point frequently ignored by both sides in the gun control debate: a significant percentage of Americans consistently favor a ban on the private possession of handguns. Over the past two decades, 33 percent to 36 percent of Americans have been shown to favor such a ban.8 A 1999 Newsweek poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates in August 1999 found that 37 percent of the American public favored, "Banning the possession of handguns except by the police and other authorized persons." An April 1999 survey by Princeton Survey Research Associates posed the question, "Do you think there should or should NOT be a law that would ban the possession of handguns except by the police and other authorized persons?" and received a positive response of 50 percent. In a March 1993 survey by the same firm, 39 percent favored such a law, a number which, by December 1993, had grown to 42 percent. Similar support can be found for a ban on the saleof handguns. In a Pew Research Center poll released in September 1999, 46 percent of respondents favored a law "that banned the sale of handguns." A May 1999 survey by Princeton Survey Research Associates found 44 percent of respondents favoring a law "that banned the sale of handguns." In the wake of high-profile shootings like the 1999 Columbine massacre, support for such a ban has spiked as high as 50 percent.50

From whatever angle you view these numbers, it is clear that there are tens of millions of voters who form a latent political force for achieving a handgun ban. That this potential for change remains untapped has less to do with the inveterate hostility of the NRA and its ilk than with the tendency of many in the gun control movement itself to treat the idea of banning handguns as an embarrassing political stepchild. Driven by the fear that merely discussing such a measure would risk alienating the political mainstream, these supporters of "common sense" gun control ignore the data cited above and make no effort to translate the heartfelt beliefs reflected in these polls into political muscle. This is a mistake the gun lobby would never make.



  1. Philip J. Cook and Jens Ludwig, Guns in America: Results of a Comprehensive National Survey on Firearms Ownership and Use, Summary Report, (Washington, D.C.: Police Foundation, 1996), XI.

  2. Philip J. Cook and Jens Ludwig, Guns in America: Results of a Comprehensive National Survey on Firearms Ownership and Use, Summary Report, (Washington, D.C.: Police Foundation, 1996).

  3. Philip J. Cook and Jens Ludwig, Guns in America: Results of a Comprehensive National Survey on Firearms Ownership and Use, Summary Report, (Washington, D.C.: Police Foundation, 1996), 41.

  4. Philip J. Cook and Jens Ludwig, Guns in America: Results of a Comprehensive National Survey on Firearms Ownership and Use, Summary Report, (Washington, D.C.: Police Foundation, 1996), 33.

  5. Philip J. Cook and Jens Ludwig, Guns in America: Results of a Comprehensive National Survey on Firearms Ownership and Use, Summary Report, (Washington, D.C.: Police Foundation, 1996), 35.

  6. According to the study, "Information on attitudes towards and experience with firearms at the state and/or regional level comes from three sources. First, the archives of the National Network of State Polls (NNSP) at the University of North Carolina were searched. These polls are general, telephone surveys of adults in a given state. This source had 202 questions about firearms from polls in 16 states between 1979 and 1996....Second, the three National Gun Policy Surveys (NGPSs) for 1996-1998, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and funded by the Joyce Foundation, have 20 items on firearms. The NGPSs are RDD surveys of adults in the United States (Smith, 1997; 1998; 1999). These items can be compared across the nine Census regions (New England, Mid-Atlantic, South Atlantic, East North Central, West North Central, East South Central, West South Central, Mountain, and Pacific) and for four of the largest states (California, New York, Texas, and Pennsylvania). Since the three NGPSs had to be pooled together to examine regions and states, there are no time queries. Third, the General Social Surveys (GSSs) of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago have two items on firearms. The GSSs are full-probability, in-person interviews of adults in the United States (Davis, Smith, and Marsden, 1999). The two firearm items can be agregated by Census region and up to 21 states by decade, so results from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s can be compared." Tom W. Smith and Luis Martos, Attitudes Towards and Experiences with Guns: A State-Level Perspective (Chicago: National Opinion Research Center, 1999), pp. 1-2. 

  7. Census Bureau Regions: New England, Middle Atlantic, East North Central, West North Central, South Atlantic, East South Central, West South Central, Mountain, Pacific.

  8. "1999 Polling on Gun Control," downloaded November 30, 1999, from www.cloakroom.com/members/polltrack/1999/issues/99guncontrol.htm; INTERNET.

  9. "1999 Polling on Gun Control," downloaded November 30, 1999, from www.cloakroom.com/members/polltrack/1999/issues/99guncontrol.htm; INTERNET.