The press spooks its readers about increased gun purchases.

Media criticism.
Nov. 13 2008 6:26 PM

Crazy About Guns

The press spooks its readers about increased gun purchases.

Close-up of a gun.
Are gun sales really dramatically on the rise?

Firearms scare almost everybody. But no demographic gets more wiggy about handguns, shotguns, and rifles than journalists. Ever since the Washington Post ("Gun Sales Thriving in Uncertain Times," Oct. 27) put the idea into circulation that the election and economic turmoil were spurring an increase in gun and ammo sales, a score of other news outlets have published their takes on the topic.

The Salt Lake Tribunegot there on Nov. 6 ("Election Triggers Upsurge in Military-Like Firearms Sales"), the New York Timeson Nov. 7 ("On Concerns Over Gun Control, Gun Sales Are Up"), the Associated Press ("Fears of Democrat Crackdown Lead to Gun Sales Boom") and Reuters on Nov. 8 ("Obama Win Triggers Run on Guns in Many Stores"), the Kansas City Staron Nov. 9 ("Election's Outcome Triggers Record Sales at Gun Shops"), the Anchorage Daily Newson Nov. 10 ("Armed and Nervous in Alaska"), FoxNews.com ("Gun Owners Stockpiling Over Fear of Democratic Weapon Bans") and CNN.com on Nov. 11 ("Gun Sales Surge After Obama's Election"), the Chicago Tribune("Obama Win Triggers Run on Guns") and the Globe and Mailon Nov. 12 ("Obama Win Spurs U.S. Gun Sales Boom"). And that's just a partial list.

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The foundation upon which these outlets build their stories is solid: The primary measurement of gun purchases shows that sales are rising this year. Federal law requires licensed gun dealers to submit background check requests of all purchasers to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The Post reports that "there were 8.4 million background checks from Jan. 1 to Sept. 28, compared with 7.7 million in the same period last year," which is a 9 percent increase.

It sounds scary, but the 2008 year-to-date increase doesn't tell the whole story. The first full year of the background check system was 1999, when 8.6 million background checks were conducted. For the next four years, background checks bubbled (PDF, Page 5) under 8 million annually and didn't break above 8 million again until in 2004. In 2007, the number of applications was essentially the same as in 1999 (8,658,000 vs. 8,621,000), which means that there was no growth in the number of gun sales over almost a decade. Considered inside the context of a decade's worth of background check data and a growing population, the 9 percent year-to-date increase doesn't seem very significant. (Nota bene: These days, 1.6 percent of gun applications are denied each year, translating into no gun sale.)

Perceived increases in gun sales tend to make news while perceived decreases do not, a realization I came to when I failed to find evidence in Nexis of any publication making a big deal out of the years that background checks fell below 8 million (2000-2003).

If all 8.6 million background checks in 2008 were for first-time buyers, one could make the potentially chilling case that growing numbers of citizens are bearing arms. But that's not very likely based on established survey data. Ownership of most of the nation's estimated 200 million guns is concentrated in relatively few hands—according to a recent article in the journal Injury Prevention, 48 percent of gun owners reported owning more than four firearms. A similar data point collected by the National Institute of Justice (PDF, Page 2) states that of "gun owners in 1994, 10 million individuals owned 105 million guns, while the remaining 87 million guns were dispersed among 34 million other owners."

This year's uptick in buyers must reflect some new gun owners, but if past surveys are a good guide, surely most of these buyers are repeat buyers. This means that the well-armed are probably getting better-armed—a point none of the recent news stories makes.

Further tamping down the fears of the nation's anti-gun nuts are data compiled by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. NORC found that gun ownership in the United States has been falling since 1977 (PDF, Page 11), when 54 percent of households reported owning a gun, compared with 34.5 percent in 2006. More good news for anti-gun nuts: According to the Department of Justice, nonfatal firearm-related violent crimes are down sharply since 1993, and nonfatal firearm-related violent victimization rates are also down since 1994. (Both rates turned up slightly in 2005 but remained low.) Crimes committed with firearms peaked in 1993 and stabilized at late-1980s levels.

Several news outlets (AP, the Anchorage Daily News, CNN.com, and the Kansas City Star) interviewed gun dealers who claimed to be posting record sales. Placed in context, that assertion wilts. A study (PDF) by the Violence Policy Center finds that the number of U.S. gun dealers declined from 250,000 in 1994 to 50,000 in 2007. Granted, many of the original 250,000 dealers were small-timers, moving small numbers of guns, who left the trade because of the cost and hassle of increased regulation. But if gun sales over time remain static while the number of gun sellers is plunging, wouldn't you expect individual dealers to post increased sales? So take those record sales with a grain of salt.

To be fair to the press horde, some sort of "Obama effect" does exist. During the week of Nov. 3-9, the FBI received 374,000 background requests, "a nearly 49 percent increase over the same period in 2007," CNN.com reports. Anecdotes collected in some of the news stories indicate that some buyers are keen on buying so-called "assault weapons," which were banned from 1994 until 2004.

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