Is gun ownership falling in the US?

Applications for gun sales have broken records repeatedly over the last couple of years. Gun manufacturers also report high demand and production. But has gun ownership begun to fall? According to a Washington Post analysis of several surveys, the number of households owning firearms has declined over the past twenty years, even as more guns than ever are being sold:

The percent of American households owning guns is at a near-40 year low in the latest CBS News poll released this month.

According to the survey, which was conducted among 1,001 Americans in the aftermath of the Orlando nightclub shooting, 36 percent of U.S. adults either own a firearm personally, or live with someone who does. That’s the lowest rate of gun ownership in the CBS poll going back to 1978. It’s down 17 points from the highest recorded rate in 1994, and nearly 10 percentage points from 2012.

Different national polls tend to show slightly different rates of gun ownership. The latest household gun ownership rate in the General Social Survey, in 2014, was 32 percent. The October 2015 Gallup survey showed a higher rate of 43 percent, including guns kept on property outside the home.

But the downward trend in gun ownership remains consistent across the national polls. According to Gallup, gun ownership has fallen by about 10 percentage points since its peak in 1993. The General Social Survey shows a 20-point drop since the mid-1970s.

In the CBS poll, gun ownership has a partisan tinge to it. Half of all Republicans responding to the survey stated that they own firearms, and another 10% refused to answer the question. Among Democrats, 73% said they had no firearms. Independents tended toward the overall results, with 34% claiming ownership and 7% refusing to answer.

That certainly might explain the increased rancor over gun rights and gun control over the past twenty years, even as FBI data shows that firearm-related homicides have declined every year since the expiration of the so-called “assault weapons” ban. It also might explain why many Democrats seem entirely ignorant of basic firearms technology and nomenclature, starting with their insistence on passing a ban on automatic weapons … which have been banned for decades.

So if gun ownership has declined over the last two decades, why are gun sales going through the roof? Christopher Ingraham argues in his Post analysis that it’s gun owners stocking up rather than new firearms owners coming into the market. That has political implications too, if true:

Gun owners remain a potent political force in the U.S., due largely to the successful efforts of advocacy groups like the NRA. But survey data showing declining gun ownership suggests that the NRA has been successful largely by channeling the energy and intensity of an existing gun-owning base, rather than by broadening that base and bringing more supporters into the fold. If declines in ownership continue, the group could have a hard time replicating recent successes in the coming decades.

Well, maybe. There have been competing cultural forces over the last few years on gun control and self-defense that may impact how accurately these polls measure ownership. The boom of the past couple of years has come at least in part as a response to ever-more-radical gun control proposals, now including secret government lists for denial of civil rights — and that would prompt existing gun owners to purchase more firearms now.

But there has also been a demonstration of the ineffectiveness of “gun-free zones” and law-enforcement’s abilities in preventing terror attacks such as those in Orlando, San Bernardino, Fort Hood, and so on. Those events might well be attracting new gun owners, and that trend might take some time to start showing up in the polls — especially given the social stigma that the media has tried to impose on legitimate, law-abiding firearm ownership. Besides, it’s worth noting that the Gallup number of 43% still far outstrips the stated affiliation of either major political party, so the rumors of the demise of gun-owner political clout seems to be greatly exaggerated, at least for now.