The Ranks of Gun Owners Grow, and So Does Their Resistance to Scrutiny

Researchers report that many gun owners, especially newer ones, falsely deny owning guns.


Believe it or not, people are reluctant to tell total strangers about their potentially controversial activities. In particular, Rutgers University researchers say, gun ownership is something many Americans decline to reveal when questioned by people they don't know. That's especially true of women and minorities newly among the ranks of gun owners amidst the chaos of recent years. Academics are unhappy that privacy-minded respondents impair their understanding of the world we live in, but such evasion is an inevitable consequence of decades of fiery debate and punitive gun policies.

Fibbing to Nosy Strangers

"Some individuals are falsely denying firearm ownership, resulting in research not accurately capturing the experiences of all firearm owners in the U.S.," says Allison Bond, a doctoral student with Rutgers University's New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center and lead author of "Predicting Potential Underreporting of Firearm Ownership in a Nationally Representative Sample," published last month in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. "More concerningly, these individuals are not being reached with secure firearm storage messaging and firearm safety resources, which may result in them storing their firearms in an unsecure manner, which in turn increases the risk for firearm injury and death."

Bond frames the problem of dishonesty among survey respondents as posing a danger to those surveyed since they don't receive proper firearm safety information. But her deeper concern is with the validity of research into firearms culture and policy in a country where experts don't have anywhere near as good a handle on the prevalence of gun ownership as they had believed.

"The implications of false denials of firearms ownership are substantial," claim the authors. "First, such practices would result in an underestimation of firearms ownership rates and diminish our capacity to test the association between firearm access and various firearm violence-related outcomes. Furthermore, such practices would skew our understanding of the demographics of firearm ownership, such that we would overemphasize the characteristics of those more apt to disclose. Third, the mere existence of a large group of individuals who falsely deny firearm ownership highlights that intervention aimed at promoting firearm safety (e.g., secure firearm storage) may fail to reach communities in need."

It should be emphasized that the report authors didn't conclusively identify anybody who denied gun ownership as a gun owner. Instead, the report dealt in probabilities, with the researchers building profiles of confirmed gun owners. They then applied the profiles across their sample of 3,500 respondents to estimate who was likely fibbing about not owning guns. The results depend on the probability threshold applied, but they came up with 1,206 confirmed owners, between 1,243 and 2,059 non-owners, and between 220 and 1,036 potential but secretive owners lying about their status.

"It may be that a percentage of firearm owners are concerned that their information will be leaked and the government will take their firearms or that researchers who are from universities that are typically seen as liberal and anti-firearm access will paint firearm owners in a bad light," the authors allowed. They also speculated that many respondents falsely denying owning guns may come from communities that are traditionally unfriendly to gun ownership. That's an interesting possibility considering that nearly half of all those designated as potential gun owners are unmarried urban women of color. In fact, as the study points out, many new gun owners are women and minorities.

Gun Owners Look Like Everybody

"An estimated 2.9% of U.S. adults (7.5 million) became new gun owners from 1 January 2019 to 26 April 2021. Most (5.4 million) had lived in homes without guns," according to a separate study published last year in the Annals of Internal Medicine. "Approximately half of all new gun owners were female (50% in 2019 and 47% in 2020 to 2021), 20% were Black (21% in 2019 and in 2020–2021), and 20% were Hispanic (20% in 2019 and 19% in 2020–2021)."

With gun ownership becoming increasingly common beyond the traditional ranks of white suburban-to-rural men, there are big implications for politics and policy. New gun owners will certainly resist proposals to strip them of self-defense tools they acquired out of necessity. They're also likely to resent restrictive policies that urban, left-of-center politicians promote to torment gun owners once assumed to be safe targets, but which apply to anybody who owns firearms no matter where they live and vote. Basically, the gun-ownership landscape is growing and changing, but new owners are even more reticent than established ones about revealing their existence to researchers and government officials.

After decades of debate, arbitrary crackdowns, and draconian enforcement actions, who can blame them?

Until recently, many gun opponents tried to paint firearm ownership as a fading fetish among a disappearing class of Americans.

Old Firearm Assumptions Look Shaky

Firearms "are owned by roughly one in five U.S. adults and can be found in approximately one of three U.S. households," wrote the authors of a 2015 analysis of results from the National Firearms Survey, published in 2015 in the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences. "Between 2004 and today, we know that the proportion of adults who personally own firearms (and the proportion who live in households with guns) has continued to decline, modestly but steadily, largely because of a decline in personal gun ownership by men." They estimated 265 million firearms in private American hands.

But in 2021, Pew Research reported: "Four-in-ten U.S. adults say they live in a household with a gun, including 30% who say they personally own one." And Gallup reported in 2020 that "thirty-two percent of U.S. adults say they personally own a gun, while a larger percentage, 44%, report living in a gun household." Switzerland's well-respected Small Arms Survey put the number of guns in private American hands at over 393 million in 2018.

Recent years have seen a surge in gun sales, spurred by rioting, social disorder, and political turmoil. Given that many of these gun buyers are first-time owners, it's apparent that firearm ownership is becoming more widespread and being enjoyed by Americans who might have resisted the idea in the past. These new owners are even more suspicious of scrutiny than their predecessors in the already privacy-minded gun-owning community.

"Our results highlight the potential that several groups, particularly women and individuals living in urban environments, may be prone to falsely denying firearm ownership," adds the Rutgers report.

Academic researchers and policymakers who draw from their work clearly regret such opacity. But they should cast the blame not on gun owners, but on the activists and politicians who vilified the exercise of self-defense rights and who drove growing numbers of Americans to evade scrutiny.