A survey of 16,708 gun owners provides updated answers to some of the most pressing questions surrounding guns in America.
The National Firearms Survey, conducted in 2021 and updated earlier this year, examines the breadth of gun ownership and the use of guns throughout the country. It found more minorities and women own guns than previous surveys indicated, half of gun owners report carrying a handgun for self-defense, and nearly a third report having used a firearm to defend themselves–a number that translates to over 1.6 million defensive uses per year. William English, the Georgetown University professor who created the survey, told The Reload it is the most comprehensive look at American gun ownership yet produced.
“The biggest difference between the results of this survey and many earlier ones is that this survey goes into greater depth regarding types of firearms owned, the details of defensive gun uses, and frequency of defensive carry of handguns,” Professor English said. “This survey is also the largest survey of gun owners ever conducted, providing more statistical power than earlier surveys and much more information about the demographics of gun ownership and use. Its results are largely consistent with other recent survey work when it comes to general ownership estimates, which increases the confidence in its accuracy, but it goes into greater depth with regard to many details of interest.”
The sweeping survey will likely influence both the political and legal landscape surrounding firearms. The debate over guns has primarily centered on how common the ownership of guns is and how often they are really used to protect people rather than endanger them. Much of the evidence cited in that debate is decades old. So, the introduction of not just more thorough but more recent evidence may disrupt the decades-old conversation on guns. Its effect may be particularly stark in federal courts where the Supreme Court has placed significant weight on protecting guns in “common use for lawful purposes.”
The survey could also shake up how academics study guns in America. Up to this point, most gun ownership surveys have not been much larger than traditional public opinion polls. That means their samples can not be generalized down from their nationwide scope to more specific areas, such as the state level, without introducing further uncertainty. Most studies have attempted to control for that uncertainty by relying on indicators of gun ownership, including local suicide rates, rather than direct measurements.
However, Professor English’s survey established a representative sample of gun owners in all 50 states. He said the estimates in his survey are similar to the Rand Corporation’s widely-cited estimates on some of the more populous states but vary significantly in smaller states. The new data has the potential to upend the results of many studies that have relied on less straightforward ways of estimating gun ownership in the area they’re studying.
The survey also advances the understanding of defensive gun use. It shows many American gun owners report actually using their firearms to defend themselves.
“Given that 31.1% of firearms owners have used a firearm in self-defense, this implies that approximately 25.3 million adult Americans have defended themselves with a firearm,” English wrote in a preprint report on the study published on the Social Science Research Network (SSRN). “Answers to the frequency question suggest that these gun owners have been involved in a total of approximately 50 million defensive incidents. Assuming that defensive uses of firearms are distributed roughly equally across years, this suggests at least 1.67 million defensive uses of firearms per year in which firearms owners have defended themselves or their property through the discharge, display, or mention of a firearm (excluding military service, police work, or work as a security guard).”
However, English noted it also paints a more realistic picture of defensive gun use than what’s often shown in movies or TV. Instead of an altercation with many shots fired and the assailant ending up shot, the vast majority of defensive gun uses did not involve the defender firing any shot at all. Brandishing a gun was enough to end the threat to the gun owner in 81.9 percent of cases.
In cases where defenders did fire, a single shot was enough to end the confrontation in nearly half of the cases. Taking two shots was the next most common outcome, with each additional shot becoming less common.
Gun-control advocates and researchers have critiqued survey-based defensive gun use estimates, including the oft-cited work of criminologists Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz, as overestimates and elevated estimates in the tens-of-thousands range, calling into question the primary practical benefit of gun ownership. English said the paradoxically non-violent nature of most self-defensive use of firearms is why survey-based estimates like his differ significantly from those that use more restrictive metrics, such as the number of justifiable homicides or emergency room visits for gunshot wounds. He said his survey’s estimate aligns well with estimates for the number of emergency room visits once you factor in how few shots defenders say they fire and factor in the likely hit rate of those shots.
“The key to the puzzle is the fact that shots fired in self-defense rarely hit their target,” English told The Reload, citing studies from 2008 and 2018. “Studies of police have found that something like 65-85% of shots fired by officers miss. Note that these are trained professionals, and if they are engaged in a shooting incident, this will typically be pursued at close range until the perpetrator has been apprehended or incapacitated, meaning it’s not sufficient to simply fire a shot to scare an aggressor away. I wouldn’t be surprised if more than 90% of shots fired in self-defense by ordinary people didn’t hit anyone. Ordinary people should be less accurate, on average, than professional police officers. And, in most cases, the spectacle of gunfire is likely enough to get an aggressor to flee, which is sufficient for protecting a victim.”
English said his survey addressed another common critique of previous work in the field. He said previous studies that tried to estimate yearly defensive gun uses relied on respondents not only remembering that they used a gun in self-defense but also that it happened within the previous year. English designed his questions to avoid that pitfall, betting people are more likely to remember if they experienced a traumatic defensive encounter rather than the exact timeframe it happened in.
“My survey took a different approach, asking about defensive use at any time, not simply the last year,” he told The Reload. “The results show that this is not a rare event at all, with something like a third of gun owners reporting having used a gun in self-defense. Because of how the question was asked, I don’t have to engage in the exercise of extrapolating out estimates from measures of rare events in a restricted window of time.”
There are other potential weaknesses of English’s approach, though. He noted the survey only asked questions about defensive gun use to those over 18 years old and those who self-identified as gun owners. He said that might explain why his yearly estimate is on the lower end of Kleck’s previous estimates, which topped out at 2.5 million per year.
“There are also reasons to think that the [defensive gun use] estimates of this survey are conservative,” English said. “Kleck had found that a large proportion of those who had used guns in self-defense did not personally own a gun.”
English also looked at areas beyond what other researchers had attempted to survey at scale before. The survey found that AR-15s and similar rifles are in the hands of a wide swath of American gun owners, as are magazines that hold more than ten rounds of ammunition. What’s more, it found carrying pistols for protection is commonplace as well.
“In sum, about 31.9% of U.S. adults, or 81.4 million Americans, own over 415 million firearms, consisting of approximately 171 million handguns, 146 million rifles, and 98 million shotguns,” English said in his report. “About 24.6 million individuals have owned a up to 44 million AR-15 and similarly styled rifles, and 39 million individuals have owned up to 542 million magazines that hold over ten rounds. Approximately a third of gun owners (31.1%) have used a firearm to defend themselves or their property, often on more than one occasion, and guns are used defensively by firearms owners in approximately 1.67 million incidents per year. A majority of gun owners (56.2%) indicate that they carry a handgun for self-defense in at least some circumstances, and about 35% of gun owners report carrying a handgun with some frequency.”
The survey of over 44,000 Americans, from which 16,708 gun owners were identified for further questioning, was conducted through the internet between February 17th and March 23rd 2021 by the polling firm Centiment. It is part of a larger research project by English on guns in America. He said he plans to publish several more academic papers on it in the coming months, ultimately culminating in a book on the topic.