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The Myth of the Rise in Female Gun Ownership

The rate at which women are buying firearms has remained mostly unchanged for decades.

A reporter in Morgan County, Missouri, recently caught wind of a trend that is purportedly gaining ground around the country. “More and more women” are buying firearms and practicing shooting, the Lake News reported on Monday.

The article echoed a story broadcast on CBS News earlier this month that reached the same conclusion. The report, featured on “CBS Sunday Morning,” featured an interview with a woman who loves her pink pistol (“It is pink, I’m a girl!”), a gun store with a pithy name (She’s A Pistol), and novel gun accessories that cater to women, like garter holsters. In another recent article, Fox News surmised that the swelling output of tiny .380 handguns — a caliber that has shaken off a reputation for poor quality and criminal popularity — is being fueled by new female shooters desiring a smaller weapon.

As gun sales have surged, stories on rising female gun ownership have become a staple for local and national news outlets. The sheer frequency of such headlines gives them the ring of truth. But the best available data says their sweeping conclusions don’t hold up.   

The CBS News and Lake News reports were each sourced to a survey of gun dealers by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), who told the group that they were seeing more female gun buyers. The catch is that the NSSF survey and others like it, researchers say, are based on anecdotal evidence that does not reflect reality.

“There’s been no meaningful directional change in the percent of women owning guns,” Tom Smith, the director of the General Social Survey, tells The Trace. The GSS, a project of the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, is considered one of the country’s most rigorous sociological surveys. It’s conducted through personal interviews with 1,500 people in each year’s sample, either face to face or online. Since 1980, the study has regularly asked whether respondents personally own a gun, a more direct measure of ownership than dealers’ impressions of who’s coming into their stores. On average, the GSS has found 11.2 percent of American women report owning a gun, fluctuating from as low 9.1 percent in 1989 and as high as 13.7 percent in 1982. In 2014, the last year for which data is available, 11.7 percent of women reported owning a gun, or about the average rate.

The NSSF survey, and others conducted by hunting or gun organizations that seem to show swelling numbers of female gun buyers, typically lack scientifically rigorous methodology. Instead, the groups gauge female ownership by less direct indicators, such as the number of women enrolling in marksmanship classes or the casual impression of dealers.

Data from reputable sources like GSS has been publicly available for decades. Publications have been running stories based on shaky evidence of a supposed wave of new female gun owners for almost as long. Ad Age, for instance, published a story in 1989 under the headline, “Why Annie’s Gotta Get a Gun: gun makers shoot for women.” Touching on new guns directed at women, like Smith & Wesson’s Ladysmith pistol, the story quoted a Gallup poll that found the number of women owning guns increased by 50 percent from 1986 to 1988. Those findings no doubt cheered the people paying for the survey. It had been commissioned by Smith & Wesson.

In 1994, amid the early flurry of such trend pieces, the General Social Survey director released a report that attempted to debunk them. The GSS noted that it had 14 years’ worth of survey results that undermined the persistent narrative that more women were buying guns.

The GSS report has not prevented a credulous press from publishing stories based on the faulty studies. Gun advocates and trade groups continue to push such stories, perhaps because of another trend made clear in the GSS data: While the number of female gun owners has remained essentially the same over that last 30-plus years, the proportion of men who own guns has steadily declined over that same period. From 1980 to 1990, between 44 and 52 percent of male respondents said they owned a gun. In the past five years, that number has averaged close to 35 percent.

Confronted with the downturn, the gun industry is looking for positive stories to tell. “A swell in the ranks of women gun owners has enormous implications for the industry both economically and politically,” a 2014 NSSF report on female gun buyers says. If the gun industry can draw in more women, it will be better able to make the case to  lawmakers that its customers represent a broad constituency of Americans.

But it doesn’t appear that the gun industry has been able to introduce significantly more women to shooting. Instead, the statistics suggest that the gun business depends on a shrinking group of customers — male and female — who buy more and more weapons. Stories about first-time female gun owners, even if they’re based more on anecdotes than hard evidence, obscure that unsettling fact.

[Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg]