Thursday, October 13, 2011

You have to ask yourself, "Do I feel lucky?" Well do ya? ...punk!

If you have never seen Clint Eastwood as Detective Harry Callahan, AKA "Dirty Harry", then you will probably have at least heard it impersonated by any number of people, Jim Carey included. The famous line, as well as Dirty Harry's revolver, are very much a part of popular culture. In fact, guns in general have long been part of America's culture.

In 1970, historian Richard Hofstadter wrote an article titled America as a Gun Culture. From his article the phrase "gun culture" came to be used to describe America's fascination with firearms. Today America's gun culture seems to be thriving, and it is often thought that rural America is leading the charge.

President Obama made headlines and was harshly criticized for his comment during the 2008 presidential race referencing a small Pennsylvania town when he said,

"... so it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to their guns or religion...."

Regardless what he meant when he said them, his words add strength to the argument that most people associate rural communities with gun ownership.

It does appear that rural Americans have a closer relationship with guns than their more urban cousins. A firearm in rural communities is used to protect livestock, scare away pests, and put food on the table. There is a hunting culture that has emerged among many rural families and communities. It has become more than a simple past time and method to stock the family freezer. Hunting in many communities has become a rallying point for political issues, a right of passage for youth, and political statement.

But are guns and rural areas as closely linked as we think. Several factors say the link may be much weaker than thought and others confirm it.

A study published in 2006 by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, titled Trends in Fishing and Hunting 1991-2006: A focus on Fishing and Hunting by Species, tends to show that the number of hunters is declining (yet the number of days current hunters spend hunting has increased). When we look at the states that are predominantly rural, we get mixed findings. Some predominantly rural states such as Idaho and Wyoming had almost half the number of deer hunters in 2006 from previous numbers in 1991. In the same period, other rural states such as Arkansas, Alabama, and Kentucky had significant increases in the number of hunters from 1991 to 2006. We can see similar mixed results when we compare more urban states. It's arguable that the number of hunters could predict roughly the number of guns in a community, but there are additional factors as to why the number of hunters is generally decreasing. The number of hunters in each state may simply be a start in searching for the rural and gun connection, but it's not completely helpful.

A better source for the actual number of guns is the FBI's NICS Firearm Background Check. The NICS Firearm Background Check is a tool used by the government to ensure that people prohibited from owning firearms (felons, non-US citizens, those with mental illness, etc.) cannot purchase them from federally licensed firearm dealers. Anyone who wishes to sell firearms as a business must be federally licensed and run each potential buyer through the FBI's background check. The NICS record shows the number of background checks conducted by states monthly and annually since 2000.

Using NICS has its limitations. NICS does not tell us whether the potential purchaser passed the background check, how many guns were purchased (one background check will work for a single purchase of multiple guns), nor does it report the number of gun sales between private citizens (sales between private citizens is legal in several states). Despite these limitations it's still the best method we have in estimating the number of gun sales per year.

What can we learn by comparing the number of gun sales in a state usually thought of as rural, to a state usually thought of urban? Lets compare Massachusetts, a state fairly densely populated and mostly suburban, to Idaho, a state with a large rural population. In 2011, Massachusetts' residents were responsible for 112,772 background checks. With a population of 6,593,587, that is roughly .01 guns per resident. In the same year, Idaho was responsible for 74,367 background checks. Idaho's population is 1,293,953, which calculates to roughly .05 guns per resident. NICS numbers, then suggest that residents of rural states are buying more guns.

Calculating out all of the 50 states' NICS' numbers and populations seems to show that rural states do in fact buy and own more guns than urban states. Just compare Kentucky, a more rural state, and New Jersey, a more urban state. The state of Kentucky has .25 guns per resident, while New Jersey has only .005 guns per resident.

One could also point to the large increase in gun sales by the predominantly rural states just after President Obama was elected to suggest that rural communities are gun crazy. Gun stores all across the country were busier than they had been in years upon the President being elected. The media picked up on it and published several articles concerning it, often focusing on the small rural gun shop. Of the many articles I read and skimmed through the authors rarely focused on any urban gun stores but focused on the "small town gun dealer" and dealers in primarily rural states. The media assumed that the majority of gun sales were being made in rural areas, but based on NICS data appears to support the idea that gun ownership increased across the country all along the rural-urban continuum.

Barring entering every home in America to count how many guns they have and comparing them to other areas, its almost impossible to say with certainty whether rural America is truly more connected with firearms than urban America.


JT said...

I thought it was particularly interesting that there was supposedly an increase in gun sales linked with Obama's election to presidency. I wonder if there was a particular reason why the gun studies decided to focus on the rural areas rather than the urban, as you point out. Additionally, I imagine there must be other factors that could also spark similar increases in gun sales besides the political one (the election). For example, maybe the economic condition of an area might play a role? In that case, would rural areas be more likely to see an increase in gun sales rather than the urban? Or, would gun sales stay rather uniform regardless of urban or rural areas, as the statistics you use suggest?

Courtney Taylor said...

I am very curious if living in a rural area is really a secondary factor to other less obvious factors that contribute to gun ownership. Perhaps what one does for a living highly correlates with gun ownership and those occupations with high gun ownership are mostly found in rural areas? For example, let's say most farmers own guns to help control animals on their property and for safety. It's possible that most farmers live in rural areas. These farmers would tip the scales making it seem that more rural people own guns than urbanites. Or perhaps there really is more utility to owning a gun when one lives in a rural area.

ScottA. said...

Having been in rural areas, far removed from any protection of police, the gun is the only form of protection a person can have against wild animals and the occasional hostile trespasser. But it isn't like rural people are just wandering around with guns, looking to pop off a few rounds at anything that annoys them.

My grandfather had a gun in case any predator harassed his pets or farm animals. But I also watched the man shoo away a curious bear cub rather than shoot it. But I think urban reporters view rural uses for guns with the violent uses that occur in the city.

Touching on the gun sales spike after President Obama's election, I have to wonder if the media was implying that rural (read: white) people were buying up guns in reaction to a black president being elected. Maybe that is why they focused on rural gun shops rather than urban ones. I personally think they were reacting to a possible repeat of the Clinton presidency when a lot of arms and types of ammunition were banned.