But gun purchases, as measured by FBI firearm background checks, are at historic highs. And data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms shows that gun manufacturers are churning out record numbers of guns. Many gun rights advocates argue that these figures mean that the overall number of gun owners is growing: If more guns are being sold, more people must be owning guns.
But the declining rates of gun ownership across three major national surveys suggest a different explanation: that most of the rise in gun purchases is driven by existing gun owners stocking up, rather than by people buying their first gun. A Washington Post analysis last year found that the average American gun owner now owns approximately eight firearms, double the number in the 1990s.
Gun owners remain a potent political force in the U.S., due largely to the successful efforts of advocacy groups like the NRA. But survey data showing declining gun ownership suggests that the NRA has been successful largely by channeling the energy and intensity of an existing gun-owning base, rather than by broadening that base and bringing more supporters into the fold. If declines in ownership continue, the group could have a hard time replicating recent successes in the coming decades.
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