Who Owns Guns? Nobody Knows

Stats on guns are a black hole, and that is on purpose

Last month, CBS News and Fox News asserted that there has been a rising boom in female gun ownership in the nation.

But swiftly following the release of these reports, The Trace, an independent, nonprofit media outlet “dedicated to expanding coverage of guns in the United States,” rebuked the claim. The Trace, which prides itself on accuracy about gun issues, insisted that “the rate at which women are buying firearms has remained mostly unchanged for decades,” calling the headlines nothing but a myth.

How are these publications looking into the same issue getting wildly contrasting findings about guns? Maybe because when it comes to national statistics about firearms, we are all fumbling in the dark. According to Andrew McClurg, a professor of law at the University of Memphis and author of the forthcoming book, Guns and the Law: Cases and Materials, “The bottom line is we don’t have the foggiest notion about important data involving almost every single gun issue in America.”

For its broadcast report on gun ownership and women, CBS News referred to a survey of gun dealers, conducted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation. The Trace, meanwhile, looked at data from the General Social Survey, a project of the University of Chicago’s research center that is considered one of the country’s most rigorous sociological surveys. Do we know which data is more reliable? There are debatable pros and cons to the methodology conducted in each study, but the bigger problem—which gun experts and researchers across the country are bemoaning—is the stinging absence of a national database tracking gun ownership in America.

Richard Aborn, president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York, tried to illustrate the gaping holes in gun data with an analogy: “Imagine you go to the doctor because you have pain all over your body—but you’ll only allow the doctor to examine, say, your feet. How can there be any conclusive diagnosis?” he said. “There is an abundance of data but we’re prohibited from investigating it.”

Experts and academics say that the main reason the statistics around guns are fuzzy is because of a clampdown on gun research imposed on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In the early 1980s, the CDC began studying firearm deaths and injuries as a “public health” problem. In 1988, two CDC researchers published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine urging that firearm injuries should be studied using traditional methods like those used to study diseases. In the following years, the CDC sponsored a number of studies—almost all of which produced research that potentially could be marshaled in a campaign for greater regulation of firearms.

Soon after, the National Rifle Association (NRA) lobbied Congress to disband the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention, the center that funded the gun research. The center survived, but with one added key stipulation, The Dickey Amendment, a rider on a 1995 appropriation bill, which stated that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” Bill Clinton signed the bill.

The meaning of the Dickey Amendment has never been fully clear. According to Lindsay Nichols, a spokesperson for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “there is a strong argument that the language in the appropriations bills doesn’t actually prevent the CDC from funding gun violence research. But the CDC has interpreted it broadly.” In fear of losing funding, the CDC responded by ceasing to fund any kind of research regarding gun violence.

When approached for comment, the NRA did not respond.

Just last year, in the wake of the Charleston shootings, Congress upheld this 19-year-old ban on gun violence research. Congress considered its first gun provision since the Charleston church shooting in June 2015. The Trace reported that in a party-line vote, the House Committee on Appropriations voted to continue to block the CDC from funding research related to gun violence, “retaining a measure that was first attached to a spending bill by a pro-NRA Congressman nearly 20 years ago”—the Dickey Amendment.

The impact of this congressional clampdown on furthering comprehensive gun research, according to McClurg, has been “tremendous.” In 2013, President Obama, after the Sandy Hook mass shooting, issued an executive order to “end the freeze on gun violence research.” But the Dickey Amendment continues to stand and McClurg says that’s a problem. “The issue is that as long as that language is in the law, everyone is afraid to violate the law,” he said.

So how does gun research work when there isn’t a fully complete national database tracking gun ownership? Not well. Bindu Kalesan, a professor at Boston University with expertise in quantitative social research, says people get creative. “We look at the National Violence Death registry, which collects information on gun violence deaths, sometimes we use the numbers CDC provides on national gun deaths overall; we look at hospitalization data,” she said, “but since there is no national registry of gun ownership, these numbers are all incomplete.”

A common estimate is that 300 million guns are owned by Americans but, according to McClurg, “We don’t know just how accurate it is because we’ve never actually kept count.”

Gun ownership, according to Nichols, is just one missing variable in the research around gun violence. “Studying gun violence isn’t the same as studying gun ownership,” she says.

But for McClurg, the issues of gun ownership and gun violence are very much related. “We don’t know for sure how many guns are in the country—nobody has a clue—and this impairs any kind of rational analysis of the issue because it’s a starting point,” he said. Because of these looming holes in research, McClurg believes that “almost any question you could ask on gun violence in America would lack both an informed answer and data set.” A consequence of this information blackout is, he says, that even well intentioned participants on both sides of the gun debate are forced to rely on incomplete or dated information—“books on guns frequently cite studies from as back as the 1980s.”

An example of the impact this ban on research is perfectly embodied in the conflicting findings of CBS News and The Trace—the unavailability of solid numbers is replaced by survey methods, which according to David Frank, a professor of rhetoric at University of Oregon, can be heavily subjective. “Survey methods can be effective, of course, but it’s very much dependent on the kinds of questions, the participants and the nature of the study,” he said.

Alex Yablon, the journalist at The Trace who wrote the response article on female gun ownership, said lots of stories on gun ownership are based on surveys of gun dealers and their impressions. “It leads to even reliable news organizations to make extrapolations because there isn’t reliable data on this sort of thing.” Ultimately, Yablon thinks this heavily impacts the nature of gun research in the country and what gets written about—both in the media and in academic circles. “There is a growing recognition that the limits on gun data don’t make sense,” he said, “but even more alarming is the direct effect it has on policy debate and what the public understands—which is never a complete picture since there isn’t thorough data.”

Unfortunately, our knowledge base about guns is shrinking over time. For some gun researchers, like Kevin Wolff, assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the gaps in gun data plays a determining factor in what he chooses to study. “We have NYPD data on homicides and whether a gun was involved, there is data on incidents reported to the police, there is data on gunshot wounds,” he said, “but I would stay away from writing about the pervasiveness of guns in the country, because of the shaky numbers around gun ownership. The peer review editors would pick it apart, and my job is about getting papers published.”


Krutika Pathi