We've all seen dozens of articles touting a spike in gun sales and a surge in membership in gun groups like the National Rifle Association. But the number of gun owners and gun households in the United States is dropping. Could the tactics of gun groups and certain individuals be to blame?
Back in 1974, the number of gun owners was nearly 50 percent in America. It's not surprising, given America's crime levels and social unrest. But back then, the NRA was also a group that stood for gun safety and responsible gun ownership.
Nowadays, that number households with a gun has dipped under one-third of Americans, according to the Associated Press. Only 22 percent of individuals claim to own a firearm (down from 31 percent in the mid-1980s), according to the General Social Survey, conducted by the right-leaning University of Chicago. And that's even with all of the events folks claim are driving gun sales, like Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession of 2008 and social unrest in Ferguson, Mo. Thanks to gun groups, it's even easier to get a firearm today, which means more people should be packing heat.
So why are more Americans saying no to gun ownership?
Sure, some get a weapon for personal protection, but with huge drops in the crime rate from the 1990s through today, it's a little easier to feel secure. The same factors that drove Robert Putnam to find a decline in bowling leagues may also spur a drop in hunting groups, as the assault on anything that smacks of "community" is in full swing.
But being a gun owner means something different from those heady days of 1974. The public face of the gun owner is the person going into a Chipotle restaurant, brandishing an AK-47 to "protect" the patrons. It's someone bringing a gun to an opponent's political rally, to intimidate the other side, or into a lawmaker's office with veiled threats.
It's that lone neighborhood watch person with a violent history who disregards the police dispatcher to take the law into his own hands. It's the mom with a cache of weapons whose son loves acting out dark fantasies while playing violent video games. It's the family whose kid accidentally discharges the weapon in a WalMart, with tragic results.
And lots of people are saying "that's not me."
The conservative site Newsmax reported that a poll in late February found only 32 percent of Texans liked these open carry laws, "while the remainder, 68 percent, would either prefer no legal handguns in public or to keep the current laws allowing licensed carry of concealed handguns." Only 10 percent supported people toting unlicensed firearms in public. In a state often regarded as the most pro-gun in the USA, those results are pretty jarring.
Oh don't get me wrong. I'm sure gun sales might still be up, as a few folks assemble their own private arsenal in case of disaster. But the trends don't look too good for those who want to build a sizable coalition of voters for future legislative battles over guns. Maybe the old tactics of the NRA emphasizing responsible gun ownership and professionalism were better than the "in your face" style today.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.