The largest-ever scientific survey of gun owners has documented the overwhelming popularity of gun carry amongst modern gun owners.
Georgetown University Professor William English’s National Firearms Survey offers one of the most comprehensive insights into a multitude of key questions surrounding guns in America. It provides a useful update to the scientific literature on defensive gun uses in America, finding that they occur about 1.6 million times per year.
It also documented the popularity of AR-15s and similar rifles, as well as magazines with a capacity greater than ten rounds. These items are hotly contested in the public debate, and robust data on their ownership could play a key role in ongoing political and legal battles over their future availability.
But at a time when the Supreme Court has just recognized a constitutional right to carry a firearm in public for self-defense, perhaps no aspect of gun ownership is more front and center in the public debate than gun carry. Highly populated states that were affected by the Court’s ruling, such as New York and California, have since scrambled to pass new laws cracking down on the practicality of gun carry. Meanwhile, laws passed earlier this year made it so half the states in the Union now officially allow public carry without the need for a permit.
As the vicissitudes of politics continue to change how governments view gun carry, it’s worth taking a look at how gun owners view carrying. It turns out that carrying a firearm is popular, at least on certain occasions.
A majority of gun owners, 56.2 percent, said there are certain circumstances in which they carry a handgun for self-defense. That works out to around 45.8 million adults saying they carry, a number equal to about the combined population of the states of California and Colorado.
To be clear, the way the survey question was asked allowed for the inclusion of gun owners who say they carry on their own property. Therefore, it’s unlikely that all 45.8 million represent people who carry in public during the course of their daily lives.
Another question in the survey attempted to get closer to that figure and found about 35 percent of gun owners report carrying a handgun with some frequency. That was the combined number of those who said they carry “Sometimes,” “Often,” or “Always or almost always.”
To truly nail down how many gun owners are consistent public gun carriers, English narrowed the estimate using several more factors.
“In order to provide a robust but conservative estimate of those who actually carry in public, we code as ‘public carriers’ those individuals who indicated both that they have a concealed carry permit and that they carry a handgun for self-defense at least ‘sometimes,'” English said. “We also restrict analysis and population estimates to those age 21 and over given that most states restrict those under 21 from carrying concealed in public. Using this simple definition, we find that 26.3% of gun owners are ‘public carriers,’ which translates to approximately 20.7 million individuals who carry handguns in public under a concealed carry regime.”
English’s finding tracks with similar studies conducted by other researchers. The Crime Prevention Research Center, for instance, found that there were 21.52 million carry-permit holders as of 2021.
However, both estimates are likely a sizable undercount.
Half the states in the U.S. now no longer require a permit in order to carry a firearm in public, including 18 at the time English’s survey was conducted. It’s possible that respondents living in permitless carry states answered “no” to the question about having a carry permit, yet carry a firearm with some regularity. Likewise, nearly half of all states allow adults under the age of 21 to carry a handgun in at least some circumstances.
Therefore, the true number of gun owners who carry in public with some regularity is likely many millions higher than the number English arrived at.
Additionally, more than one-third of all gun owning respondents said they have wanted to carry a handgun for self-defense in a particular situation, but local rules prohibited them from doing so.
The survey does not expand on this question with any more granularity, but at the very least it suggests a strong demand exists for the ability to carry a handgun for self-defense in more places. Given that the survey was conducted before the Supreme Court’s Bruen decision, it’s quite possible that it captured the segment of the gun-owning population living in states that had restrictive “may-issue” permit policies.
Now that may-issue regimes have been struck down, it’s possible that number has shrunk and the overall number of identifiable “public carriers” has risen considerably. After all, roughly one-quarter of the U.S. population resides in formerly may-issue states.
No matter which way you slice the data, one thing is clear: Gun carry is an enormously popular practice. It’s one that tens of millions of gun owners across the country say they participate in with some regularity, and it’s quite likely to continue growing as more Americans are able to do it legally.