The Gun Survey That Dare Not Speak Its Name



[Editor’s Note: We are pleased to welcome to DRGO authorship a good friend and colleague, intellectual and good guy Tom Gift, MD.  He knows research, teaching and clinical psychiatry, and keeps his pistol close to hand.] 

Recent liberal media are agog about the “most definitive portrait of U.S. gun ownership in 2 decades” but—would you believe it?—the report is unpublished.  Rather, it was previewed to two media outlets known to be unfriendly to the idea of citizen gun owners. 

One is The Trace, an anti-Second Amendment website founded with money from Michael Bloomberg, billionaire ex-mayor of New York and notorious campaigner against the idea and the actuality of an armed citizenry. The other is The Guardian, a left of center British media organization.  The Guardian at least is long established and generally respectable, so we’ll focus on its reporting.

The survey, also known as the Harvard/Northeastern study, is said to be based on a quiz of nearly 4,000 Americans conducted online in 2015 by GfK.  This is a market research company that purports to provide nationally representative panels of opt-in participants who are compensated to complete surveys on a variety of issues. This sort of self-biasing “study” population makes drawing generalizable conclusions from the data nearly impossible.

The Guardian discusses a number of specifics, saying they’re drawing on the results from the study. Reporting that the data indicate handgun ownership is increasing, one of the survey’s architects is quoted, “The desire to own a gun for protection—there’s a disconnect between that and the decreasing rates of lethal violence in this country. It isn’t a response to actuarial reality.”

For many who have acquired handguns for protection, there’s no doubt quite a gap between actuarial reality and actual reality. Assuming that finding is accurate, an increasing percentage of handgun ownership may indicate that more individuals exposed to danger (real danger, not statistical danger) may indeed be purchasing handguns.

The Guardian seems to find significance in a communication from the authors that the ratio of handguns to long guns is increasing. If purchases of handguns exceed the purchase of long guns, and if people who previously owned handguns continue to do so then indeed, and unremarkably, the ratio of handguns to long guns will increase. Interestingly, neither the survey report nor The Guardian draws a different obvious conclusion—increasing handgun ownership could be causing a decrease in lethal violence.

One of the survey architects is quoted as saying “American gun ownership is driven by increasing fearfulness.” Since we have no access to the data, we can’t know what she based this statement on.  It sounds more like anti-firearms bias than an objective reading of the motives of gun owners.  The Guardian readers might be excused for thinking that perhaps gun ownership is driven by reasonable motives—a wish to exercise Constitutional rights, participate in a sport, defend oneself and one’s family or a host of other factors. Those who are so motivated might more fear the efforts of many in politics and academia to curtail Second Amendment rights.

The Guardian quotes another researcher who praises the survey’s quality.  Perhaps the data were shared with him, but who knows?  Sort of like judging a beer brewing contest when you’re only allowed to smell the suds.

We’re told that, “Some gun owners responded to the study with trepidation.” The reluctance of many respondents to tell strangers conducting surveys about their gun ownership has long been noted.  Evidently Deb Azrael, the lead author of the unpublished study, must lead a sheltered life. She is quoted as saying, “I don’t know anybody who thinks or talks seriously about confiscating guns.”

Mike Bazinet, of the National Shooting Sports Foundation said, per The Guardian, that “he would have to defer full comment until he could read the entire survey and its methodology. But he questioned why some results of the survey were being released before the full paper was published, and said some of the results sounded implausible. ‘Really? Three per cent of American gun owners own half the guns? That seems wildly off the mark. On the surface, this survey sounds like part of the ongoing effort to minimize gun ownership to make more gun control seem politically achievable.’”

All in all, the interpretation being marketed about this survey appears aimed at eroding support for gun ownership by making it seem increasingly deviant.  And that’s odd, isn’t it, since gun ownership is such a common, traditional, important and still growing part of life in and of America.

[Editor: A suspiciously similar publication obtainable from the ZeroHedge blog  via GunCulture2.0 (with David Yamane’s two subsequent posts on who funded it and who the respondents were) presents the story very thoroughly.  The study was presented at a Russell Sage Foundation symposium on “The Underground Gun Market: Implications for Regulation and Enforcement” featuring Philip Cook, Daniel Webster, and Garen Wintemute focusing on the supply side of crime gun availability.  Russell Sage has a history of funding work supporting firearm restriction and confiscation.]


Tom E Gift, MD

—Thomas E. Gift, MD is a child and adolescent psychiatrist practicing in Rochester, New York, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical School, and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.

All DRGO articles by Thomas E. Gift, MD.