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Millennials Aren't That Into Guns — Except in Video Games

A new survey found that instead of buying guns for protection, millennials prefer podcasts about guns, first-person shooter video gaming, and sport shooting.
Image: Gun Safety
Two Glock 26 hand guns lay on a bed of empty shell casings while on display at the Shooting Hunting and Outdoor Trade show on January 18, 2011 in Las Vegas. FileJulie Jacobson / AP

Protection is the most common main reason for owning a gun, but millennials and Gen Z could change that.

A new survey by Pew Research Center found that adults aged 18 to 29 are more likely to cite sport shooting as their principle reason for owning a gun.

“Older people are saying they want guns for protection, but 18 to 29 year-olds are saying they’re more into going shooting at a gun range,” Kim Parker, director of social trends research at Pew Research Center, told NBC News. “They’re also more likely to listen to gun-oriented podcasts and shows, more likely to participate in online forums, and generally more likely to integrate technology in gun culture.”

Drop in Crime, Rise in Video Games

This behavioral shift in younger adults, where guns are less needed, and more appreciated, makes sense on a few levels: For one, murder rates are near historic lows, down by half of what they were in 1991 when nearly 50 percent of Americans had guns in their home, according to a poll by Gallup.

“The drop in violent crime has been extraordinary,” said James B. Jacobs, Warren E. Burger professor of Law, and Director at the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at NYU School of Law. “When as a society we become more safe, there is less interest in owning a handgun, most of which are owned out of a concern for personal safety.”

Related: America's Complicated Relationship with Guns

What’s more, many millennials and Gen Zs grew up experiencing guns on a virtual level by playing realistic video games.

“A lot of kids today are brought up on first-person shooter games,” said Adam Winkler, a professor of law at UCLA, and the author of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. “They have an interest in guns because they're such a big part of their virtual lives.”

Needing to Own, Versus Wanting to Experience

According to Pew’s survey, 27 percent of people aged 18 to 29 own a gun, a number that, when compared with older age groups, doesn’t relay a “statistically significant difference,” Parker said. So, even though millennials and Gen Z adults might purchase guns for different reasons than older people, they’re evidently still buying guns. But purchasing behavior could be slowing down. After all, you don’t need to own a gun to legally use one at a shooting range — and, hey, for millennials, it’s all about the experience, right?

“I see and have taught many millennials at the [shooting] range, but whereas I own numerous weapons collected over several decades, most [millennials] only own one — or none; [instead] choosing to rent one from time to time,” said Lawrence Kane, a martial arts instructor based in Seattle and the author of a number of books including, "Surviving Armed Assaults: A Martial Artist's Guide to Weapons, Street Violence, and Countervailing Force." "This is an extension of the not buying stuff rule," added Kane.

Plus, guns are expensive.

“Even a relatively inexpensive firearm requires ammunition, cleaning supplies, safe storage, a holster, etc.; so costs add up relatively quickly,” noted Kane.

Jason Eliason, a 26-year-old based in Portland, Oregon, finds no shortage of local friends to go to the range with, but he does find that fewer people his age are able to shell out money to purchase and maintain a gun.

“Most of my friends don't make enough money to afford guns,” Eliason told NBC News. “My last [firearms] purchase was a $400 .38 [revolver]; that's pretty low-range.”

And then you’ve got to buy the ammunition, which Eliason says is where “the real expenses” hit. “I pay about $50 for a box of 50 mags. That's only 30 minutes at the range.”

Can’t Beat the Political Heat

Young people may be enjoying shooting as a sport, but often, they’re not enjoying the political associations that come with firearms. Buying a gun may feel loaded with implications one doesn’t necessarily endorse. Eliason said he tries not to bring up his enthusiasm for guns around strangers any more, because he doesn’t want to be "associated with the far right,” or dragged into a debate.

“I brought up firearms one night at a bar with some friends and this drunk woman verbally attacked me for it,” said Eliason.

Related: The Age of Trump Is Producing More Black Gun Owners

Matthew Masse, a 28-year old who owns a handgun with his wife for recreational purposes, finds that negative reactions to the sheer mention of guns usually only happens in major cities.

“Attitudes towards guns [in Salt Lake City] more or less mirror what I heard in Los Angeles. It’s just 'stupid rednecks and other idiots' who want them,” said Masse. “In my experience, the issue is about where a person lives — either rural or urban.”

Pew’s survey indicates what is to be expected: Gun ownership is far more common in rural areas, with 46 percent of adults in rural parts owning a gun versus 28 percent in the suburbs and 19 percent in urban areas.

“The U.S. is becoming consistently more urban, which is a contributing factor to the gradual decline of gun ownership,” said Matthew Miller, professor of Health Sciences and Epidemiology at Northeastern University.

The NRA’s Youth Marketing

All these notions — that guns are less relied upon by young people for protection, that they’re costly and controversial, and finally, that gun ownership has indeed been slowly falling over the years — prompts the question: Might future generations be less into guns?

It’s not yet possible to say, but judging from the marketing tactics by gun lobbyist groups like the National Rifle Association to appeal to kids, it sure doesn’t seem likely.

“The NRA knows the way to win is to influence the younger generations; it’s a political powerhouse in part because it has proven able to adapt to demographic shifts,” said UCLA’s Winkler. “They did it when the hunting culture was big, and as that fell away and more people wanted guns for personal defense, the NRA embraced the second amendment, [minimizing] its traditional focus on hunting.”

In a few weeks, the NRA will be holding its annual Youth Education Summit (Y.E.S.), an expenses-paid, week-long event in Washington, D.C., that hosts high-school juniors and seniors across the U.S. It’s an invitation from the NRA to “lead the legacy,” and also to qualify to win tens of thousands of dollars in scholarship funds. Apply to become an NRA Ambassador, and you can get an additional $25,000 scholarship.

It doesn’t look like gun culture will be dying out anytime soon.