Visualizing The 2021 Nation Firearms Survey

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On May 18, 2022, William English of Georgetown University published the most comprehensive gun owner survey ever undertaken. The numbers within have been highly publicized, including by such admirably wonderful outlets like The Reload, but there hasn’t been a full and appropriate graphic representation of the stark, eye-popping results of that survey. Let’s do that.

ABSTRACT

English wrote that the report “summarizes the findings of a national survey of firearms ownership and use conducted between February 17 and March 23, 2021, by the professional survey firm Centiment. This survey, which is part of a larger book project, aims to provide the most comprehensive assessment of firearms ownership and use patterns in America to date. 

This online survey was administered to a representative sample of approximately 54,000 U.S. residents aged 18 and over, and it identified 16,708 gun owners who were, in turn, asked in-depth questions about their ownership and their use of firearms, including defensive uses of firearms.”

This is the largest sample set of any gun survey study I’m aware of, vastly exceeding the n-count for prior well-respected surveys. It’s not clear whether their sample set was subject to any sort of selection bias, but their sampling methodology was approved by the Georgetown University Institutional Review Board, who presumably did their job properly.

ASSAULT WEAPONS BAN

First, let’s visualize exactly how many people own the sorts of inanimate objects that modern, left-of-center politicians are trying to ban with their recently House-approved Assault Weapons Ban or similarly styled legislation. 

  • The number of U.S. citizens who own a firearm with a magazine that holds more than 10 rounds is approximately equal to the total number of black people in the entire United States.
  • The number of U.S. citizens who own an AR-15 or similarly styled rifle is 33 percent larger than the entire Asian population of the United States.

Next, let’s try to visualize the number of people impacted by the proposed ban. Contrary to some early social media posts, the proposed “Assault Weapons Ban of 2022” doesn’t create instant felons, but it does require that everyone who owns a banned item register it with the government. 

Given how tremendously low compliance is with such ex post facto registration requirements, it’s very likely most of these individuals would choose not to register their items. And even if they did, it’s obvious to anyone who’s ever tried to file anything with the ATF that they’re incapable of processing this amount of paperwork.

Further, there’s no indication that they won’t ban yet more guns in the future, since you can murder someone with any magazine size. If this did pass, it would likely be just the first round of many more mandatory registrations nobody is going to follow.

Curiously, the mag size limitation in the law is 15 rounds, not 10, so the polling questions don’t exactly line up with the latest legislation. But there are also other styles of weapons on the ban list that fit under the 15-round limit. 

Presuming these two opposite effects fall out in the wash, we can graph approximately how many people in the USA would become instant felons unless they comply with a registration requirement from a horribly funded and even worse run federal bureau best known for shooting dogs and burning children.

Twelve percent of the entire U.S. population would be forced to register their firearms or become instant felons. This equates to approximately the entire population of California in terms of total numbers. Now let’s compare the number of people impacted by the ban to the number of gun homicide victims in the United States.

We can’t. There’s no way to visualize such an enormous discrepancy. For every firearm homicide in 2020, the proposed law would force 2,012 people to register their firearms or be in felonious noncompliance, and it’s unassailably true that none of those 2,012 people will murder anyone with them because the criminals aren’t going to register their firearms.

Before we move off this topic, let’s do one other interesting comparison.

These numbers are very stark. There are 19 times more AR-15 owners than there are staff in the entire active-duty U.S. military. There are 410 times more U.S. AR-15 owners than the Taliban, to whom that same military famously lost in 2020. 

There are 55 times more AR-15 owners than the entire National Guard. The ATF isn’t on the graph, but as of 2019, the ATF had 1,714 field agents, approximately one field agent for every 14,000 AR-15 owners.

And, notably, there’s quite a large overlap between the first three groups—military, guard, and police—with AR-15 owners and owners of over 10-round magazines. Most of the first three fall into either or both of the final two. 

State Owned AR-15 Style Rifle 95% Confidence Interval
Alabama 28.90% 24.1% – 34.3%
Alaska 37.00% 24.4% – 51.6%
Arizona 28.80% 24.2% – 34.0%
Arkansas 35.00% 28.7% – 41.8%
California 37.50% 34.8% – 40.2%
Colorado 33.30% 27.7% – 39.5%
Connecticut 21.80% 15.3% – 30.2%
Delaware 20.30% 12.6% – 30.9%
District of Columbia 30.00% 14.1% – 52.7%
Florida 28.10% 25.5% – 30.9%
Georgia 31.40% 27.9% – 35.1%
Hawaii 34.60% 19.1% – 54.3%
Idaho 31.00% 23.3% – 40.0%
Illinois 32.60% 28.7% – 36.7%
Indiana 30.80% 26.5% – 35.5%
Iowa 27.10% 20.4% – 35.1%
Kansas 28.40% 22.4% – 35.4%
Kentucky 29.90% 25.2% – 35.1%
Louisiana 27.50% 22.0% – 33.7%
Maine 22.00% 14.6% – 31.6%
Maryland 29.90% 23.7% – 36.9%
Massachusetts 33.80% 26.9% – 41.4%
Michigan 24.90% 21.5% – 28.6%
Minnesota 20.70% 16.1% – 26.3%
Mississippi 30.40% 23.8% – 38.0%
Missouri 28.00% 23.8% – 32.7%
Montana 26.80% 16.8% – 39.8%
Nebraska 22.40% 15.3% – 31.8%
Nevada 42.40% 34.6% – 50.6%
New Hampshire 23.20% 14.0% – 36.0%
New Jersey 30.70% 25.7% – 36.2%
New Mexico 29.50% 19.4% – 42.1%
New York 37.80% 34.8% – 41.0%
North Carolina 25.60% 22.2% – 29.4%
North Dakota 44.40% 24.0% – 67.0%
Ohio 25.90% 22.7% – 29.4%
Oklahoma 29.30% 24.1% – 35.0%
Oregon 25.60% 20.0% – 32.2%
Pennsylvania 24.40% 21.3% – 27.8%
Rhode Island 29.70% 17.3% – 46.1%
South Carolina 25.30% 21.0% – 30.2%
South Dakota 35.80% 26.8% – 45.9%
Tennessee 28.90% 24.8% – 33.3%
Texas 36.00% 33.3% – 38.7%
Utah 24.80% 17.9% – 33.2%
Virginia 26.00% 21.9% – 30.6%
Washington 35.30% 30.3% – 40.6%
West Virginia 27.40% 21.3% – 34.5%
Wisconsin 19.70% 15.6% – 24.6%
Wyoming 36.10% 25.9%- 47.8%

Percent of gun owners who have indicated that they have ever owned an AR-15 style rifle by state. Note that this includes rifles modified to be compliant with local laws and those that an owner holds in other locations if there are local ownership restrictions.

Even if this strange law were to pass the Senate, and were to be signed by the president, and were to pass Supreme Court scrutiny, it’s extremely unclear who is supposed to enforce it. Certainly not the cops. They’d be targeting over one quarter of all gun owners in almost every state, and up to one third or more in others.

DEFENSIVE GUN USE

The visualizations in this study are quite good for defensive gun use. For example, it includes questions on the use of firearms to defend people and property.

The most interesting perspective is gained by comparisons with other data, so we can truly understand what the survey data means.

In the poll, English takes a broad definition of “defensive gun use,” which includes times when the gun wasn’t fired, or even perhaps displayed if the verbal representation of being armed allowed the person to defend themselves from a threat. Per the study, approximately 25.3 million Americans have used a gun in self-defense, 81.9 percent of whom did so in a way which didn’t require the gun to be fired. 

The study estimates this translates to approximately 1.67 million such instances per year. Let’s compare that to 2020’s statistics on murders by firearm.

According to the study, there are 86 times more defensive gun uses than there are murders by firearm in the USA. Almost half of black gun owners have used a gun defensively. Over one quarter of female gun owners have used their gun defensively.

Demographics of defensive gun use.

Demographic Group Proportion of Gun Owners Who Used Gun Defensively 95% Confidence Interval
White 29.70% 29.0% – 30.5%
Black 44.30% 41.2% – 47.5%
Asian 26.00% 21.7% – 30.9%
Native American 47.70% 42.7% – 52.7%
Pacific Islander 37.10% 26.0% – 49.7%
Other Ethnic Ancestry 36.20% 30.3% – 42.7%
Hispanic (any ancestry) 39.30% 36.0% – 42.8%
Male 33.80% 32.8% – 34.8%
Female 27.30% 26.2% – 28.4%

The number of defensive gun uses based on the polling totals approximately 50 million across all years, or 19 percent of the entire U.S. adult population, whether they’re gun owners or not. It’s hard to truly understand how large that number is, unless you look at a crowd. Here’s a picture of a grocery store:

You may have been to a grocery store like this. In this photo, we see 20 people. You’ve certainly been to a grocery store with more than 20 people, but let’s use this example. If this were an average grocery store:

  • Two of the people in the store have defended themselves with a gun at some point in their life;
  • Two of the people in this grocery store own AR-15s;
  • Three own a firearm with a magazine that holds more than 10 rounds, so in this case that would be the two AR-15 owners and perhaps one other who owns a 9mm double stack pistol but no rifle;
  • Somewhere between one and two of the people in the grocery store are currently carrying a handgun concealed on their person;
  • Three people in the store would be forced to register their firearms with the ATF if the current version of the assault weapons ban passes, or else become an instant felon, and;
  • One person out of 851 identical grocery stores, each with 20 patrons, all added up together, will be murdered by an assailant wielding a gun this year.

This is for an average grocery store, the kind that you frequent every day to buy produce.

Hopefully this helps everyone involved in the great gun debate, on either side, better visualize the findings of this study. 

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