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Firearms sales in the United States appear as healthy as ever thanks to a fear the federal government is seeking impose restrictions on Second Amendment rights, a belief that does not hold water as the Obama administration has not actually accomplished anything substantial on this front

Peter Power for The Globe and Mail
The GUN paradox
While firearms ownership in the United States appears to be dropping, gun sales keep rising

It only took a few weeks – and some 80,000 angry messages – before the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had to back down.

In February, the U.S. federal agency floated a proposal to ban a particular kind of armour-piercing bullet know as the M855 “green tip.” The ATF has previously banned certain types of bullets, but this time it decided to open the process up to public consultation. What followed was a massive campaign against the ban, waged by many of the largest pro-gun groups in the country.

“The vast majority of the comments received to date are critical of the framework, and include issues that deserve further study,” the bureau said in a statement this week. “Accordingly, ATF will not at this time seek to issue a final framework.”

There are an estimated 310 million firearms in civilian hands in the United States, according to the Congressional Research Service. Figuring out where those guns are and who owns them is not so simple. There is no state or national gun registry – and no political appetite to create one. This month, the National Opinion Research Center at the University Chicago released its 2014 General Social Survey and offered a snapshot of U.S. gun ownership, which it says is at a record low.

Trish McAlaster/The Globe and Mail

Where are gun owners concentrated?

Gun ownership is highest in the U.S. South and Midwest and is concentrated in rural areas, according to the General Social Survey. The percentage of adults living in households with guns was highest – at 55.9 per cent – in counties with towns with less than 10,000 people. In the 12 largest cities, the figure was closer to 14 per cent. Other factors, such as race, also determined the likelihood of gun ownership. A higher percentage of white Americans reported a firearm in their household (39 per cent) compared with blacks (18 per cent) and Hispanics (15 per cent). Income was another factor. Higher household incomes meant a greater likelihood of gun ownership.

What is the overall trend in ownership?

The overall trend, according to the General Social Survey, is a decline in gun ownership. The 2014 figure – with 31 per cent of households reporting owning a gun – matches a similar record low four years ago. The researchers point to the decline in hunting culture. “In 2014, only 15.4 per cent of adults lived in households in which they, their spouse, or both were hunters,” stated the report. This is the lowest level since 1977 (31.6 per cent), the report stated.

A new U.S. gun culture is taking over – and it’s to do with more Americans applying to carry a concealed weapon, says Jennifer Carlson, assistant professor in sociology at the University of Toronto Mississauga and author of the coming Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline.

Does everyone agree that it's declining?

Not entirely. “The big challenge for me looking at these numbers is that you have to be confident that people are going to report their gun ownership accurately,” said Samuel Bieler, research associate at the independent and non-partisan think tank Urban Institute in Washington. “And I think it’s an open question as to whether if a gun owner is already suspicious of someone’s motive for collecting firearm information, whether they’d be willing to do that,” he added. There are also Gallup surveys that point to spikes in gun ownership in recent years. “There’s enough noise and enough countervailing explanations that to me, the jury is really still in some ways out on the full amount of gun ownership,” said Mr. Bieler.

What kind of guns do Americans own?

Of the estimated 310 million firearms available in the U.S. in 2009, the Congressional Research Service estimates: 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles and 86 million shotguns.

What is happening to the sale of guns?

Exact numbers are hard to establish. The FBI carries out background checks for any purchase of firearms. Its National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, has seen a dramatic increase in gun background checks in recent years. But the law-enforcement agency cautions against drawing a direct link between background checks and gun sales.

That’s because background checks could be carried out under a variety of scenarios – and not just the purchase of a gun, according to experts. It’s not a perfect indicator of gun ownership, but certainly worth studying closely, said Mr. Bieler.

With the rise in background checks and the drop in household gun ownership, Ms. Carlson believes there is a trend. “It’s not just fewer households with guns, but also that the households that have guns actually have more guns. That is a reflection of the politicization of the gun debate in the U.S. and not just in terms of do you believe in the Second Amendment [and the constitutional right to bear arms], but also in terms of the very act of owning a gun is much politicized today than it was in the 1970s,” she said.

What does declining gun ownership mean for gun control attitudes?

In December, 2014, a survey by the Pew Research Center reported that for the first time in 20 years, support for gun rights was greater than support for gun control – and that since the Newtown tragedy in which 20 children and six school staff were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, support for gun rights increased from 45 per cent to 52 per cent.

The survey also pointed out that an increasing number of Americans believe gun ownership protects people from crime. In December, 2012, 48 per cent held that position. Two years after Newtown, 57 per cent believed guns save people from becoming victims of crime.

The findings present a paradox, according to Ms. Carlson.

“How is it that people are increasingly imagining guns as tools of safety rather than tools of violence? How is that possible even when you see this decline in ownership?” she asked.

“I think it’s because what we’re seeing is not the decline of American gun culture. We’re seeing the transformation of American gun culture from a hunting oriented gun culture to a gun culture where guns are about protection,” she added.

With research by Rick Cash

There exist in the United States few domestic issues as polarizing and paradoxical as gun control. Myriad surveys have shown a strange divergence – some indicating that the number of people buying guns has remained flat or declined for a decade, others showing that gun sales have, during the same period, skyrocketed. And even as the U.S. continues to suffer from one of the highest gun-related death rates in the world, gun control remains one of the country’s political taboos, vehemently opposed by a vocal and efficient lobby whose most powerful player is the National Rifle Association.

According to the 2014 edition of the General Social Survey, one of the largest general trend reports in the U.S., 31 per cent of households reported having a firearm. That’s the lowest level on record, tied with 2010, since the survey began standardized monitoring in 1972.

But at the same time, firearms sales appear to be as healthy as ever. According to the FBI criminal background-check database – often used as a proxy for measuring gun sales – checks have steadily risen over the past decade and a half, from 8.5 million in 2000 to nearly 21 million last year. Some of the sharpest spikes coincide with the election and re-election of President Barack Obama, suggesting a concern that a Democratic White House would move to limit gun rights – a concern that, for the most part, has not materialized.

But within the data, there is a more complex story. For years, the General Social Survey tended to show a significantly lower rate of gun ownership in the United States than many other surveys – a discrepancy that may be explained not by statistics, but by the basic mistrust of authority that appears to be a common denominator among the most fervent pro-gun advocates.

“The only thing I know that’s for sure different between the GSS and other polls is that the GSS is an in-home, face-to-face survey,” said Gary Kleck, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida State University. “What that does is make it a non-anonymous survey. You may say gun owners are paranoid for thinking it, but they think governments – and in particular the federal government – are out to get their guns.”

It is that sense of mistrust that has, in large part, fuelled the lobbying and marketing efforts of the country’s biggest pro-gun groups. Virtually every measure put forth by the Obama administration to expand background checks or impose similar limitations has been characterized by opponents as the first step in a much more broad effort to separate Americans from their guns.

“The Obama administration has proposed the mildest kinds of things, like extending background checks to private transfers of guns,” Prof. Kleck said. “But in this heightened context of concern and suspicion, that was regarded as a threat to the Second Amendment. The Obama administration is widely regarded as pro-gun control, but they haven’t actually accomplished anything.”

(The National Shooting Sports Foundation and the Second Amendment Foundation, two of the largest pro-gun organizations in the country, did not respond to requests for comment).

In reality, gun ownership appears under no such threat – more civilians own guns in the U.S. than almost anywhere else on the planet. According to the most recent estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 30,000 people are fatally shot in the U.S. every year, but those statistics have had little impact on ownership rates. Indeed, many reports indicate gun sales tend to spike after major gun-related incidents, such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 – perhaps as a pre-emptive measure in anticipation that the federal government will respond to the incident with tighter gun-control laws.

Rather than federal control, though, many gun laws are under the purview of individual states, and vary wildly. On Thursday, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a Washington-based activist group, launched a media effort aimed at highlighting the states with the most lax regulations. Using a parody recommendation site called CrimAdvisor, the group – named for James Brady, the former presidential press secretary wounded in an assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981 – rated each state on its background check systems, among other metrics (it declared Arizona the most “criminal-friendly” state for the ease with which guns may be obtained there).

“This whole thing would be really funny if it weren’t so tragically true,” Brady Campaign president Dan Gross said. “Several states make it so outrageously easy to get and carry guns without background checks that they have become prime destinations for criminals.”

But such efforts are unlikely to offset much more structural challenges faced by the gun-control lobby. For years, the Democratic Party was seen as largely in favour of more restrictive gun measures. But more recently, some southern and western Democrats have broken ranks with the White House on the issue – partly to appease the electorate in regions where Mr. Obama and his policies have become more and more unpopular. In addition, the Democrats who are in favour of such measures find themselves hamstrung by the party’s poor showing in the most recent midterm elections, which gave Republicans control of the House and the Senate.

“It’s just a matter of numbers,” Prof. Kleck said. “The pro-control forces don’t have the votes. If anything gets passed, it is for the most part trivial.”