In the wake of a massacre like the one that happened in Aurora on Friday, gun advocates begin making some strange arguments. The first, of course, is that we shouldn't even be talking about guns as an issue at a time like this, because it would be unseemly to "politicize" a tragedy (as The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne pointed out, this is the only issue on which anyone advocates this kind of gag rule; when there's a flood that kills people, nobody says "This isn't the time to talk about flood control"). Then there's the nihilistic approach: No public policy could make a difference, so why bother? As The Post's George Will said in dismissing the notion of gun control, "There are deranged people in the world." What are you gonna do—try to make it harder for them to kill large numbers of people at once? Don't be silly. And there's the argument-from-spurious-correlation: Crime has been going down in recent years in America despite our continued enthusiasm for firearms, so there really is no problem at all with guns.
Something has changed, though. It's true that America is drowning in guns as much as it ever was: although precise figures are hard to come by, there are somewhere between 200 million and 300 million guns in America, enough for nearly every man, woman, and child in the country to be packing heat. Yet that fact obscures a trend most people aren't aware of: Gun ownership has been declining steadily for years.
Let's look at a graph. The data here are taken from the General Social Survey, a highly respected research project that has been run by the University of Chicago for the last few decades:
In 1977, 54 percent of households reported owning guns; by 2010 that number had declined to 32 percent. And the decline happened across all age groups and birth cohorts. There are a number of explanations, including the decline of hunting as a pastime and the movement of population from rural areas to suburbs and cities. But if the number of gun owners has declined yet the number of guns hasn't, that can only mean that America's dwindling number of gun owners are each amassing bigger arsenals than ever.
The gun industry and the National Rifle Association sure want it that way. Gun lobbyists have been working hard to make sure that the law is no impediment to buying as much weaponry as you want. In February, Virginia repealed its law limiting gun purchases to one a month, to the celebration of the lobby; that leaves only California, Maryland, and New Jersey with such laws still on the books. And the industry and gun advocates cooperate to convince gun owners that gun and ammunition confiscation is always just around the corner, thereby urging them to go out and stock up.
When President Obama was elected in 2008, gun owners were told their weapons would soon be confiscated and gun sales surged. In advance of the 2012 election, the industry and gun advocates are once again telling gun owners that their guns might be taken from them. "We see the president's strategy crystal clear," said NRA leader Wayne LaPierre. "Get re-elected and, with no more elections to worry about, get busy dismantling and destroying our firearms freedom, erase the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights and excise it from the U.S. Constitution." And once again, sales have risen in response. There is no evidence that these increases occurred because millions of people were going out to buy their first firearm. Instead, it appears, existing gun owners were increasing the size of their arsenals. The chief executive of Smith & Wesson attributes the increase in sales to the industry's "installed user base"—in other words, gun owners buying more guns.
Gun owners are fond of joking that when they're asked how many guns they own, they answer, "More than I need, but not as many as I want." We've stopped being surprised when we hear about people who own not just a rifle or a handgun, but enough weapons to outfit an entire platoon. The gun industry and the NRA have convinced gun owners that's what they need, as though your home defenses won't be complete until you have multiple weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition, just in case a few hundred heavily armed burglars all try to break in and steal your TV at the same time. And we've made sure that the legal impediments to buying as much weaponry as you want are laughably small. So as we mourn the victims in Colorado, nobody should be surprised the next time some deranged loner bristling with instruments of death walks into a public place and opens fire. It will happen again, and we won't have long to wait.
Paul Waldman is a Contributing Editor with The American Prospect magazine and the author or co-author of a number of books about media and politics, including The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories That Shape the Political World. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and many other newspapers and magazines.