The media plays dishonest numbers game with guns

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A brand new PEW Research Center survey last week shows that gun ownership by households is up to 42 percent — an increase of 5 percentage points in the past four years.

Yet, few mainstream media outlets announced the increase. 

In fact, the media goes out of its way to find polls claiming that Americans are turning away from guns. In my book, “War on Guns” the impression given by the media is that gun owners are a small, fringe group.

Maybe they are hoping that this will have an impact on policy. As General Social Survey director Tom Smith told me, a large drop in gun ownership would “make it easier for politicians to do the right thing on guns.”

Just last year the Washington Post and Time magazine trumpeted a CBS News poll with this headline: “American gun ownership drops to lowest in nearly 40 years” and “The Weird Reason Why Gun Ownership in America Is at Its Lowest Point Since the 1970s.”

In 2015, an Associated Press headline announced: “Gun ownership in U.S. drops to record low.”

Recent headlines in the New York Times and CNN declared: “Share of Homes With Guns Shows 4-Decade Decline” and “Fewer US gun owners own more guns.”

The Washington Post falsely assured readers, “The downward trend in gun ownership remains consistent across the national polls.”

Bizarrely, if the Washington Post and CNN had relied on their own polls, their headlines would claim that gun ownership has remained constant over the years.

But neither organization has run such headlines.

Only two surveys actually show a long-term drop in gun ownership. They are by CBS News and the General Social Survey (GSS).

According to the GSS, the percentage of homes with a gun has fallen from approximately 50 percent in the late 1970s to 32 percent in 2014.

The CBS poll claimed that ownership had fallen from 51 percent in 1978 to 36 percent this year.

But many other surveys have obtained very different results.

According to Gallup, household gun ownership has ranged from 51 percent in 1994 to just 34 percent in 1999. In 2014, household gun ownership was at 42 percent – comparable to the 43-45 percent figures during the 1970s.

There was absolutely no news coverage of a 2011 Gallup poll headlined, “Self-Reported Gun Ownership in U.S. Is Highest Since 1993.”

The ABC News/Washington Post poll shows an even more stable pattern, with household gun ownership rates of 44-46 percent in 1999.

In 2013, the ownership rate was 43 percent.

A CNN poll from January showed 40 percent of Americans living in a household that owns a gun. Nine percent of respondents were unwilling to state an opinion, implying that the true ownership rate is greater than 40 percent. 

Quinnipiac University survey found that household gun ownership in December 2015 was 46 percent.

Furthermore, polling is not the only indicator of gun ownership.

The number of concealed handgun permits has soared from about 2.7 million in 1999 to over 14.5 million in 2016. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) shows that the number of gun purchases has exploded, almost doubling from 2008 to 2015.

In Illinois, a Firearm Owner Identification (FOID) card is required. The number of people with those cards dramatically increased from slightly over 1 million in 2010 to 1.8 million in 2015.

There are some other strong reasons for believing that polls underestimate the number of gun owners.

A recent Zogby Analytics survey posed the question, “If a national pollster asked you if you owned a firearm, would you determine to tell him or her the truth or would you feel it was none of their business?

Thirty-five percent of current gun owners said that it was none of the pollsters’ business. This answer is especially common among those who claim not to be gun owners.

We also know that current events influence people’s willingness to acknowledge gun ownership. After mass shootings, a sudden drop can be seen in the polling numbers.

But there is no evidence of people getting rid of their guns. Indeed, gun sales actually soar.

But this isn’t the only limitation of gun ownership polls. Take the fact that, compared to married women, married men are much more likely to admit to having a gun in the home.

Either the men are hiding guns from their wives or women are more reluctant to tell pollsters that they own a gun. If the latter, the GSS survey results should be about 4 percentage points higher.

There are still other clear biases in gun polling. Like other polls, the new Pew survey claims 70 percent of gun owners and 88 percent of non-gun owners who support background checks for private sales and at gun shows. 

Yet, surveys on particular bills show no such support and voters have shown little enthusiasm when presented with ballot initiatives. Take Michael Bloomberg’s two initiatives last year. 

In Maine, he outspent his opponents by over six times but still lost the vote by 4 percent. In Nevada, he spent an incredible $35.30 per vote — three times more than his opponents — and won by just 0.8 percent.

The media’s selective use of polls may provide gun control advocates with talking points. 

But hard numbers clearly show a huge increase in gun sales and in the percentage of Americans who carry guns.

John R. Lott, Jr. is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and the author most recently of “The War on Guns” (Regnery, 2016).

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Gun control gun safety Guns media NRA Polling

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