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Visualizing the 2021 National Firearms Survey
The juiciest graphs you've ever seen, and a grocery store.
On May 18, 2022, William English of Georgetown University published the most comprehensive gun owner survey ever undertaken. The numbers within have been highly publicized, including by such admirably wonderful outlets such as The Reload, but I have not yet seen a full and appropriate graphic representation of the stark, eye-popping results of that survey. Let’s do that.
This report summarizes the findings of a national survey of firearms ownership and use conducted between February 17th and March 23rd, 2021 by the professional survey firm Centiment. This survey, which is part of a larger book project, aims to provide the most comprehensive assessment of firearms ownership and use patterns in America to date. This online survey was administered to a representative sample of approximately fifty-four thousand U.S. residents aged 18 and over, and it identified 16,708 gun owners who were, in turn, asked in-depth questions about their ownership and their use of firearms, including defensive uses of firearms.
The survey was undertaken by the national private survey firm Centiment, which screened 54,244 total people, and then transferred 16,708 people into a more detailed survey about gun ownership itself. This is the largest sample set of any gun survey study I’m aware of, vastly exceeding the n count for prior well respected surveys. I do not know whether their sample set was subject to any sort of selection bias, but their sampling methodology was approved by the Georgetown University Institutional Review Board, whom I hope did their job properly.
First, let’s visualize exactly how many people own the sorts of things that modern left of center politicians are trying to ban with their recently House-approved Assault Weapons Ban or similarly styled legislation.
The number of US citizens who own a firearm with a greater than ten round magazine is approximately equal to the total number of black people in the entire United States.
The number of US citizens who own an AR-15 or similarly styled rifle is 33% larger than the entire Asian population of the United States.
Next, let’s try to visualize the number of people impacted by the proposed ban. Contrary to some early social media posts, the Assault Weapons Ban of 2022 does not create instant felons, but it does require that everyone who owns a banned item register that banned item with the government. Given how tremendously low compliance is with such ex post facto registration requirements, it’s very likely most of these individuals would choose not to register their items. And even if they did, it’s obvious to anyone who’s ever tried to file anything with the ATF that they are incapable of processing this amount of paperwork.
Further, there’s no indication that they won’t ban yet more guns later, since you can murder someone with any magazine size. If this did pass it would likely be just the first round of many more mandatory registrations nobody is going to follow.
Curiously, the mag size limitation in the law is 15 rounds, not 10, so the polling questions aren’t exactly accurate. But there are also other styles of weapons on the ban list that fit under the 15 round limit. Presuming these two opposite effects fall out in the wash, we can graph approximately how many people in the USA would become instant felons unless they comply with a registration requirement from a horribly funded and even worse run federal bureau best known for shooting dogs and burning children:
12% of the entire United States population would be forced to register their firearms or become instant felons. This equates to approximately the entire population of California, numbers wise. Now let’s compare the number of people impacted by the ban to the number of gun homicide victims in the United States.
We can’t. There’s no way to visualize this. For every firearm homicide in 2020 the proposed law would force 2,012 people to register their firearms or be in felonious noncompliance, and it is unassailably true that none of those 2,012 people are going to murder anyone with it because the criminals aren’t going to register their firearms.
Before we move off of this topic, let’s do one other interesting comparison.
These numbers are very stark. There are 19 times more AR-15 owners than there are staff in the entire active duty United States military. There are 410 times more United States AR-15 owners than the Taliban, to whom that self same military famously lost last year. There are 55 times more AR-15 owners than the entire National Guard. I didn’t put the ATF on the graph, but as of 2019 the ATF had 1,714 field agents, approximately one field agent for every fourteen thousand AR-15 owners.
And, notably, there is quite a large overlap between the first three groups - military, guard, and police - with AR-15 owners and owners of 10+ round magazines. Most of the first three fall into either or both of the final two. Even if this strange law were to have passed the Senate, and were to have been signed by the president, and were to have passed Supreme Court scrutiny, it is extremely unclear who was supposed to enforce it. Certainly not the cops. They’d be targeting over one quarter of all gun owners in almost every state, up to one third or more in others.
The visualizations in this study are quite good for defensive gun use. For example:
But I’m less interested in the data he’s presenting, and am more interested in comparisons with other data, so we can truly understand what this data means.
In his poll, he takes a broad definition of “defensive gun use,” which includes times when the gun wasn’t fired, or even perhaps displayed if the verbal representation of being armed allowed the person to defend themselves from a threat. Approximately 25.3 million Americans have used a gun in self defense in his poll, 81.9% of which did so in a way which did not require the gun to be fired. He back calculates approximately 1.67 million such instances per year from his poll. Let’s compare that to 2020’s gun murder statistics.
According to his poll, there are 86 times more defensive gun uses than there are gun murders in the USA. Almost half of black gun owners have used a gun defensively. Over one quarter of women gun owners have used their gun defensively.
The number of defensive gun uses based on his polling totals approximately 50 million across all years, or 19% of the entire United States adult population, whether they’re gun owners or not. It’s hard to truly understand how large that number is, unless you look at a crowd. Here’s a picture of a grocery store:
You may have been to a grocery store like that. In this photo, we see twenty people. You’ve assuredly been to a grocery store with more than twenty people, but let’s use this grocery store. If this were an average grocery store,
Two of the people in this grocery store have defended themselves with a gun at some point in their life,
Two of the people in this grocery store own AR-15s,
Three own a firearm with more than a ten round magazine, so in this case that would be the two AR-15 owners and probably one other who owns a 9mm double stack pistol but no rifle,
Somewhere between 1 and 2 of the people in the grocery store are currently carrying a handgun concealed on their person,
Three people in the grocery store would be forced to register their firearms with the ATF if the current version of the assault weapons ban ever passes, or else become an instant felon, and
One person out of 851 identical grocery stores, each with twenty patrons, all added up together, will be murdered by a gun this year.
This is for an average grocery store, the kind that you frequent every day to buy produce.
I hope this helps everyone involved in the great gun debate, on either side, better visualize these numbers.