What the headlines got wrong about gun ownership during the pandemic
A rise in gun ownership and gun sales was an often discussed side story of the pandemic. According to some estimates, one fifth of U.S households purchased guns during the pandemic, marking more than 15 million Americans who became first time gun owners. Stories surrounding the pandemic gun buying spree have explored who these new gun owners are, with many stating that people of color and women have been a large contributor to the rise in gun sales. But these stories are misleading for two reasons. First, to say that the last two years have “scrambled the demographics of gun ownership,” as some stories suggest is a grave overstatement. According to our data, the majority of recent gun buyers still fit the pattern of being primarily white and male, though perhaps less Republican than existing gun owners. Second, many of these stories neglect to mention the nearly equally large number of Americans who got rid of their guns. In fact, our data shows that about as many people ditched their guns during the pandemic as those who bought guns, suggesting that the overall number of gun households has not changed much during the past few years.
Using data from the Cooperative Election Study (CES) recontact survey which interviewed 11,000 Americans in both 2020 and 2022, we are able to look at self-reported gun ownership for the same set of individuals early and late during the pandemic. Respondents were asked to identify whether they personally owned a gun or had a gun in their household.
Around 3 percent of Americans, or 8 million American adults, went from a “no-gun” household to a gun household between 2020 and 2022. But our data also suggests that around the same number of Americans who had been in a gun owning household in 2020 no longer reported having a gun in 2022. One possibility is that household gun ownership simply changes as a result of a change in marital status. For example, somebody who got divorced between 2020 and 2022 may move out of a household or someone who got married during that same period may have moved into a gun household. However, less than 5 percent of both new gun households and gun disarmers had a change in marital status between 2020 and 2022. This means we can be confident that the vast majority of those with a change in household gun ownership are actively either purchasing or getting rid of their guns, rather than simply moving households.
When looking at personal gun ownership, unlike other studies which suggest that half of new gun owners are women and 55 percent are white, we find that 60 percent of new gun owners are male and 68 percent are white. This is consistent with what we know about gun ownership in the U.S: the majority of both existing gun owners, and new gun owners are white men. Looking at household data, we are also able to see the shares of single men, single women, and married couples who have purchased a gun in the last two years. Single men and single women make up a larger share of recent gun buyers than those who already owned guns in 2020. In other words, arried couples make up a smaller share of new gun buyers, suggesting there might be a trend towards more single individuals becoming gun owners.
In general, we also find that new gun owners are more likely than existing gun owners to be people of color and Democrats. About one-third of new gun owners are people of color, whereas people of color only made up 21 percent of gun owners in 2020. Similarly, while only 30 percent of 2020 gun owners were Democrats, 42 percent of new gun owners affiliate with the Democratic Party.
While stories focusing on the rise in gun ownership among liberals and people of color may not be wrong, they are often misleading. For example, while Democrats make up a significant share of households who acquired a gun between 2020 and 2022, they were an even larger share of the group who got rid of their guns during that same period. Thus, in the aggregate, there was no meaningful shift towards gun owners being more Democratic.
At the same time, the shift towards new gun owners being more racially diverse was not offset by a similar shift in the opposite direction — just 20% of those getting rid of their guns were people of color. But given the relatively small size of the group of Americans who purchased guns during the two-year period we studied and the fact that they were still overwhelmingly white, there was no meaningful change in the racial diversity of the gun owning population by 2022.
Stories on gun ownership during the pandemic often focus on either the “gun buying spree” during the pandemic, or the rise in gun ownership among minorities. But these headlines can be misleading. It may be true that there is a new pattern of gun ownership, with more women and people of color buying guns than had done so previously, but this doesn’t mean that gun owners are now much more diverse. In fact, new gun owners still remain overwhelmingly white and male and while many Americans did purchase guns during the pandemic, an equal number of households actively ditched their guns.