Half of U.S. Households Own Guns

From the March 31, 1995, statement of Tulane University criminologist James Wright before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Crime of the Committee on the Judiciary:

My first essential observation is that half the households in the country possess at least one gun. So far as I can tell, the first question about gun ownership in a national probability sample of U.S. adults was asked in 1959, and similar questions have been asked dozens of times since. Over the last 35 years or so that we've been asking the question, every survey has reported more or less the same result, namely, that half of all U.S. households own one or more guns.

Although many people know this to be true, I think many of the implications of this fact are not well appreciated. The fact that the ownership percentage has been effectively constant for nearly four decades, for example, while at the same time the total number of guns in circulation has increased rather substantially, implies that the increasing supply of guns has been absorbed largely by the purchase of additional guns among households already owning one or more of them. Indeed there is fairly substantial and independent evidence that the average number of guns owned by persons owning any has increased from about three guns 15 years ago to approximately four guns today. I think it is also obvious that from the viewpoint of public safety, the transition from N to N + 1 guns is considerably less ominous than the transition from no guns to one gun.

If this first implication is correct, incidentally, it means that most of the people in the gun shops today buying new firearms already own guns -- a useful point to keep in mind when pondering the alleged "cooling off" function to be served by waiting periods imposed at the point of retail sale.

A second implication is that gun ownership is not deviant behavior, but rather, normative behavior across vast swaths of the social landscape. There are areas of the country where it would be an odd person indeed who did not own a gun.

Finally, when we attempt to control crime or violence by controlling the general ownership and use of guns among the public at large, we are attempting to control the behaviors of a very small fraction of the population, the violent or criminally-inclined fraction, by controlling the behaviors and activities of roughly half the American population, and whatever else might be said about such an approach, it is certainly not very efficient.