Denial, deception, or refusal to answer?

As was widely reported at least ten days ago Dennis Henigan was in denial about the number of guns being purchased. He has a lot invested in that belief because The Brady Campaign has repeatedly said gun ownership is on the decline:

The report they quote was published by the Violence Policy Center. The VPC relied on gun data from the General Social Survey (GSS) conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago.

The tabular data agrees with the VPC report. But what is interesting is (as of 2001):

Trends in Gun Ownership
The proportion of households with a firearm has been in slow decline over the last quarter century (Table 6). In the early 1970s about 50% of adults lived in households that kept a firearm. This now has fallen about 34-35%. Similarly, the percent of adults living in a household with a gun fell from a high of 51 % in 1977 to a low of 32-33% in 2000-2001. These declines are partly the result of a decrease in household size. From 1980 until 1997 the proportion of adults personally owning a gun held steady at about 29%. However, since then even this level declined to about 22-24% of adults personally owning a gun.

One of ways people can “cheat without lying” with these statistics is to choose which number make their case look better when there is actually another variable that is changing. In this case the size of household affected the numbers.

In tough economic times households tend to get larger and hence the likelihood of someone owning a gun in the house could increase without the actual number of people owning guns increasing. Hence during good economic times the anti-gun people could chose to report declining “gun in the household” number while ignoring the fact that gun ownership on an individual basis was essentially constant.

I was unable to obtain the percentage of adults that own guns from the GSS data. Perhaps someone else can see a way to do it.

What is very interesting that I was able to get from the data is the number of people that refused to answer the question, given that a gun was in the house, “DOES GUN BELONG TO RESPONDENT?”

Year Percent Refusing
1991 0.0
1993 1.4
1994 0.6
1996 0.8
1998 1.0
2000 3.6
2002 2.4
2004 3.6
2006 4.7

The number of people that refused to answer the question about a gun in the home was smaller but had a similar trend:

Year Percent Refusing
1991 1.2
1993 0.6
1994 0.9
1996 0.4
1998 0.4
2000 1.3
2002 0.9
2004 1.4
2006 1.7

I would expect the upward trend to continue in 2008 and 2010 because of the mass buying associated with the election of President Obama.

I’m not sure that I have a good explanation for why the Gallup Poll reported gun in the home rate is much higher than reported by GSS (for the most recent GSS year I could find, 2006, is it 42% versus 34.5%). My speculation is that people are more trusting of Gallup than of a much lesser known organization located in an extremely anti-gun city such as Chicago. If that is true then one must also conclude that at something on the order of 5.8%* of the gun-owners lied and said “No” when asked if there was a gun in the house rather than merely refused to answer the question.


* 5.8% is obtained from (42% – 34.5%) – 1.7%

7 thoughts on “Denial, deception, or refusal to answer?

  1. I realize that the consensus view about the recent surge in gun sales is that it’s a reaction to Obama’s election. My view is pretty much the opposite. Even though Obama’s past record is very anti-gun, I think Heller and subsequent pro-2A developments have convinced prospective gun buyers that they’ll be able to keep their guns and use them. In contrast, the decline in gun ownership in the late Nineties reflected the regime uncertainty at the time. Clinton was at the real of his popularity, and was investing all his political capital in an effort to break the political power of American gun owners. To someone only mildly pro-gun, a gun would have seemed a horrible investment; the trends seemed to indicate that he’d either have it confiscated, or, more likely, that his use of it would be so restricted that it would become worthless. So, to borrow a phrase from Seinfeld, the increase in gun ownership is real–and it’s spectacular.

  2. No one in their right mind should answer a question about gun ownership, when the question was placed by a cold calling pollster who could not be identified, or even differentiated from a potential thief sizing up a targeted victim.

    And what percentage of people the pollsters called refused to answer the poll at all?
    What source determined those polled: having a landline telephone, or living within selected locales, or both?
    What are the demographics of those polled? Are they a random cross section of the population or not?

    Polls are pretty useless if you want to determine as concrete a fact as the rate of gun ownership across the entire country. For opinions, while polls are malleable like Silly Putty, they can be set up and administered to at least avoid bias within the poll itself, ignoring those who answer, or don’t answer, the questions.

    How about this? Has the number of guns turned in at all gun “buybacks” and police stations and as evidence in a criminal case exceeded the number of new guns sold in any year?

  3. Another thing to factor in on the difference between 1970 and now: More of the population lives in cities now. People who don’t live in cities are more likely to own guns. (Can’t remember where I read that but I read it somewhere.)

  4. On the topic of trust, my wholly UN-scientific polling of 341 people (at this time) indicates that 92% of them would not be truthful as to whether or not they had firearms in their homes, even if the polling agency was legitimate, and even if it was Gallup.

    I have no doubt that number is not accurate for the sample body of Gallup polls as a whole, but I feel certain there is a non-zero, somewhat large percentage of people who will answer “no”, even/especially if they have enough firearms in their home to arm a small platoon.

  5. Ubu, maybe 20 years ago when the primary reason for owning guns was hunting animals.

    These days I suspect the ownership rate is closer to 50/50 possibly fully flopped for personal protection and concealed carry.

    And unless the urban environment they live in is some of the victim disarmament zone that people like Ubu helped to create, those people are MORE likely to get a gun.

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