Pro-gun organizations and retailers have been hailing the rise of women gun owners for years and the mass media has not been far behind. Reports about women with guns and stores that are seeing a rise female customers have been circulating newspapers since the 1980s. Today's "pink pistols" are reminiscent of the Ladysmith handguns of 30 years ago.
But is it true? Are women really a fast-growing group of new gun owners?
The National Rifle Association, whose annual convention begins on Thursday in St. Louis, says yes. "Women are increasingly coming into gun ownership," says NRA spokesperson Stephanie Samford.
Samford points to anecdotal evidence. The group's "Women on Target" instructional shooting clinic started in 2000 with 500 participants in one- and two-day events. By 2011, the program grew to include over 9,500 participants, she says. She also cites gun manufacturers' efforts to cater more to female shooters with firearms that have less recoil, guns for hunting that suit smaller frames and, of course, pink handguns.
But the NRA does not keep statistics on women and gun ownership. They do not have hard data to back up the claim that more women in America are actually becoming gun owners.
A Gallup poll from last October showed a dramatic a spike in the percentage of women who report that they personally own guns. The poll is often cited in recent reports about trends of female gun owners. A record-high of 43 percent of women in the telephone survey reported having a gun in the household, and 23 percent of women said that they personally own a gun. Only 15 percent reported owning a gun in 2010.
But Gallup Poll Managing Editor Jeff Jones says that this large shift in the numbers does not necessarily mean that more women are actually becoming gun owners. The survey's random sample of 1,005 adults could have included "a slightly higher proportion of women gun owners than in prior years," Jones said in an email. While the percentage of women who report owning a gun might have gone up, Jones suspects this year's poll might be skewed a bit high.
"Usually when we see a shift like that we want a second measure to confirm," Jones said in an email. Gallup will ask the question again this October.
There are other reasons not to jump to big conclusions about Gallup's findings. The General Social Survey (GSS), run every two years by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, paints a radically different picture of women's gun ownership. According to their 2010 survey, 8.9 percent of women reported owning a gun in 2010. That number has hovered around 10 and 11 percent for the last ten years.
The GSS is conducted in mostly face-to-face interviews, and this could help explain the difference, according to Dr. Gary Kleck, a professor of criminology at Florida State University. Kleck studies gun ownership and analyzed the GSS data to find the percentages of women who reported owning a gun. When respondents feel that there is less anonymity, he says, they could be reluctant to admit to owning a gun. But Kleck still does not believe that the data indicates that more women own guns than in the past. Considering sampling error, Kleck says, the GSS shows no trend up or down. The discord between the GSS and Gallup figures makes him skeptical that the Gallup increase will prove true in the next survey.
Tracking gun ownership has never been easy. Heirlooms and firearms kept outside the home in sheds or garages, for example, might be reported differently depending on how questions are contextualized. Are respondents thinking about pistols, hunting rifles or automatic weapons? Are questions about ownership preceded by questions about government overreach or gun violence? How do respondents define ownership within their households? These factors can greatly affect survey results, says Michael Dimock, associate director at the Pew Research Center. "In a way, it's a cut and dry question - do you own a gun? But it's not actually," Dimock says.
While Gallup and GSS have a history of neutralizing context well and without bias, they could be measuring different aspects of the same subject. "The thing we look at the most is the source. Is it a place that has no dog in the fight and a record of finding the most accurate measure they can?"
The other numbers that are cited in recent stories about women and guns come from the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), which publishes figures from their annual firearms retailer survey. The NSSF certainly has a dog in the fight; it’s a firearms industry trade association.
In their survey, employees were asked whether or not they believe the number of female customers in stores increased in 2010 compared to 2009. Sixty-one percent of 539 online respondents said they saw an increase. But Jim Curcuruto, director of industry research and analysis at NSSF, says the organization does not have corroborating sales information because retailers do not track sales by gender.
Kleck is skeptical of the NSSF data. He says that it really only measures "subjective impressions, perhaps influenced by wishful thinking, optimism or propaganda from the NRA and NSSF. But it says nothing reliable about actual trends in female gun ownership. If you wanted to, you can always speculate,” Kleck says. “But what we know from the data is that there's really nothing going on."
Trend or no trend, one thing all this data can teach us is to be wary of stories that make grand claims about women and guns.