Why the General Social Survey is gun control advocates favorite survey

The New York Times cites the General Social Survey to claim that the gun ownership rate is low and falling.  

It is an impressive drop, and many have used it to claim that while gun sales have increased, the increase has taken the form of more guns being owned by a smaller and smaller number of people.  CNN states it this way:
A decreasing number of American gun owners own two-thirds of the nation's guns and as many as one-third of the guns on the planet -- even though they account for less than 1% of the world's population, according to a CNN analysis of gun ownership data. 
The data, collected by the Injury Prevention Journal, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the General Social Survey and population figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, found that the number of U.S. households with guns has declined, but current gun owners are gathering more guns. . . .
Yet, the GSS survey shows a large drop that you don't see in other surveys.  According to Gallup, in October 2011, they wrote: "At 47%, reported gun ownership is the highest it has been in nearly two decades -- a finding that may be related to Americans' dampened support for gun-control laws."  Here is the Gallup survey data since 1991.

I have been concerned about the GSS survey for some time.  Here is something that I wrote in my 2003 book The Bias Against Guns.
A few years ago, while I was doing research at the University of Chicago, I had lunch with Tom Smith, who is the director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center (NORC). This private organization conducts many important national surveys for the government as well as other clients. During lunch Tom mentioned how important he thought the General Social Survey was. He felt the large drop in gun ownership implied by his survey would “make it easier for politicians to do the right thing on guns” and pass more restrictive regulations.  His surveys have traditionally shown one of the lowest gun ownership rates among any of the surveys: for example, almost 20 percentage points lower than recent polling by John Zogby. . . .
Tom Smith is still the director of the GSS.  It is interesting to note that both the JAMA study this week as well as Tom Smith have received funding from the Joyce Foundation, which is well known for its gun control advocacy (or see here).  I am definitely not saying that the Joyce Foundation funding altered their views, but just that Joyce knows the individuals who are on their side of the debate.

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Blogger Left Coast Conservative said...

I have looked at the gun ownership rates on the GSS, and they indeed decrease over time. But rates depend on the population (number of households), and I suspected that the population may have changed.

Census data bears this out: number of households has increased. Normalizing the gun ownership by the number of household would indicate that gun ownership began to increase in absolute numbers around the year 2000.

3/10/2013 4:16 PM  
Blogger MaverickNH said...

I have been posting the Joyce Foundation connection to the JAMA article everywhere, bt it get no recognition or traction. But any connection to NRA is assumed an immediate bias and lie.. The media controls all!

3/10/2013 6:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr. Lott - Thank you for this brief but interesting post. "Left Coast Conservative" makes a good point that the number of gun owners could go up as the proportion of gun owners goes down. But it doesn't explain the difference between GSS and other surveys (e.g., Gallup).

As I am new to this area of research, I am interested in being pointed to any writing that seeks to explain this gap. Some possible explanations that come to mind:

(1) Different wordings of questions. This does not seem to be a good explanation as the GSS question does not seem to be biased in one way or the other.

(2) Different sampling methodologies. This seems like a possibility, but I do not think that rates of church attendance (for example) vary greatly between the GSS and Gallup.

(3) Survey methodology -- I know most GSS interviews are done face to face and I imagine that Gallup Polls are done by phone. Might people be more reluctant -- that is, increasingly reluctant over the years of the GSS (1972 to present) -- to admit to gun ownership in a face to face interview?

(4) Context of gun ownership question: the GSS asks people ALOT of questions about alot of different topics. Might the placement of the GSS ownership question in the overall survey affect people's willingness to admit to owning guns? E.g., if there are questions about views of gun control that precede the gun ownership question, might that prime people to answer (inaccurately) "no" to the ownership question?

These are just some ideas that come to mind. I would be interested to know if others who know more than me have investigated this.

3/11/2013 7:56 AM  

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