Social researchers have known for some time that "a broad shift away from gun ownership is under way in a growing number of American homes but is relatively unknown among the general public", according to Sabrina Tavernise and Robert Gebeloff.
A new report from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, a division of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, may enlighten the public that the numbers are not what they appear to be based on widespread media reports showing the increased popularity of gun shows and sales after the Dec. 14, 2012 massacre of 26 people, including 20 children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The report is based on the findings of the "General Social Survey, a public opinion survey conducted every two years that asks a sample of American adults if they have guns at home, among other questions."
The survey is important because "(b)y the mid-2000s, the federal government stopped asking the questions, leaving researchers to rely on much smaller surveys, like the General Social Survey, which is conducted by NORC, a research center at the University of Chicago."
The results are surprising as the decline is so broad-based "with some of the most surprising drops in the South and the Western mountain states, where guns are deeply embedded in the culture."
The rate has dropped in cities large and small, in suburbs and rural areas and in all regions of the country. It has fallen among households with children, and among those without. It has declined for households that say they are very happy, and for those that say they are not. It is down among churchgoers and those who never sit in pews.
In the 1970's, the percentage of households owning guns was 50%, compared with last year's 34% "according to survey results released (March 07)."
But what to make of those media reports showing sold-out gun shows and suppliers running low on guns and ammunition?
"There are all these claims that gun ownership is going through the roof,” said Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. “But I suspect the increase in gun sales has been limited mostly to current gun owners. The most reputable surveys show a decline over time in the share of households with guns."
Not all believe the survey's results.
Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association, said he was skeptical that there had been a decline in household ownership. He pointed to reports of increased gun sales, to long waits for gun safety training classes and to the growing number of background checks, which have surged since the late 1990s, as evidence that ownership is rising.
That skepticism notwithstanding, the survey may offer hope to gun control advocates if it is widely known that ownership is concentrated in fewer hands.