OpinionTop of the Ticket

While most Americans shun guns, the fearful keep buying more

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Here’s a riddle: If gun ownership is declining, why are so many guns being sold?

According to the General Social Survey, a project of the independent research organization NORC, the number of U.S. households with guns dropped from 50% in 1973 to 34% in 2012. This decline has shown up everywhere, including the historically gun-toting regions of the South and West.

According to researchers, just 23% of people in urban areas have guns, compared with 56% of country folk. Even that rural percentage is down from 70% in the 1970s. The number of hunters is dropping fast. Only 10% of women own firearms. Most young people are shunning guns -- just 23% of those under 30 have guns now, compared with 47% four decades ago. Latinos are a growing segment of the population, but their gun ownership numbers are small. 

Democrats and independents have disarmed in droves. The number of Democrats with guns is half what it was when the first survey was taken in 1973. The only two demographic groups that have kept their fingers on the trigger are the elderly, holding steady at 43%, and Republicans, up slightly at 51%.

What may at first seem odd is how these numbers contrast with the many recent stories about gun shops selling out their inventory as people react to the push for tighter regulation of firearms. Who is buying all those assault rifles and handguns? Apparently, there are no statistics that can give us a definite answer, but I have a pretty good guess.

Look at that Republican number. Gun owners make up half of the GOP. I would be surprised if there is not a correlation between that half and the half of Republicans who, in other polls, expressed the belief that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks and that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. I would bet they are also many of the same folks who believe Barack Obama is a Muslim or a terrorist sympathizer or a socialist or Kenya-born or all of the above. They are likely the ones who think that liberal scientists have concocted the global-warming hoax and that the Justice Department and the United Nations are plotting to disarm Americans.

If the pollsters are correct, there are a whole lot of people in this country who live in an alternate reality woven from the exaggerations and outright lies of Internet fabulists, talk radio screamers and NRA propagandists. These people tend to be old, male and Republican -- the same folks who have not given up on guns.

So, the answer to the riddle seems fairly obvious: While more and more Americans are finding guns unnecessary for sport or protection, the most paranoid among us are building personal arsenals and driving gun sales through the roof. 

There are plenty of reasons to worry about some future act of violence committed by a gaggle of well-armed sociopaths. The number of threats against the president is astonishing. Militia-type groups are proliferating. The rhetoric spewed by numerous loose cannons on the right is more and more extreme. Still, it is doubtful that all the guns piling up in private homes will ever be used for anything more violent than blasting a Forest Service sign on a back country road.

All those guns will just sit there unused until their owners die off and their heirs, one by one, join the majority of Americans who have noticed that, apart from pockets of serious danger in a few big cities, this fine country has grown more peaceful in recent years.

As a great man once said, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- and, these days, only the fearful are stockpiling guns.

[For the Record, March 12, 2:37 p.m.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to the General Social Survey as being a project of the University of Chicago.]

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