Dear Editor;

Bryan Miller in her piece “Guns & Women” [February 4] has unfortunately bought the line of the National Rifle Association and the gun manufacturers that women have been arming themselves at a rapid rate. In fact, gun ownership by women did not increase by 53 percent from 1983 to 1988. Surveys by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago indicate NO change in the ownership of either firearms in general or handguns in particular from 1980 to 1993. About 11 percent of women owned a gun and 8 percent a handgun in 1980, and these levels have remained essentially unchanged through 1993.

Second, the statistic quoted from Self that 34 million women have “access to firearms” is misleading in several regards. These figures are from the above cited surveys of NORC (and not the National Opinion Resource Center as quoted in the article) and represent the number of women living in a household in which someone owns a firearm. The approximate figures are that 10.9 million women personally own a gun, 23.3 million don’t personally own a gun, but live in a household with a gun owned by another, and 65.4 million neither personally own nor live in a household with a gun owned by others.

Third, estimates of defensive gun use range widely from about 60,000 per year up to the 1.6 million occurrences annually. While the 1.5 million figure cited by Elizabeth J. Swasey (and based on Gary Kleck’s research) cannot be totally dismissed, it is the highest estimate any research has calculated and is more than 20 times greater than other equally respectable estimates. To repeatedly use this hotly challenged figure without presenting the alternative estimates is unbalanced and misleading.

Finally, to the extent there has been any “shift in women’s attitudes towards guns” it has not been towards favoring greater use of guns, but towards supporting their greater control. Women (as well as men) are now more supportive of gun control than ever before. Again, NORC studies show that 76 percent of women favored requiring a police permit before a gun could be purchased in 1980 and 89 percent did in 1993. Opinion on the Brady Bill and other gun control measures also show high and rising support by women.

Tom W. Smith


General Social Survey

National Opinion Research Center

Bryan Miller replies:

While it’s not surprising that Mr. Smith would promote his own research, NORC is hardly the last word on this topic. If anything, I think the Kleck figure is too low. Admittedly, I base this on anecdotal evidence, but I personally know of five instances in which individuals defended themselves or others with handguns in the last few years. In only one case were the police made aware of it, because the gun owner came along in time to save a woman who was being sexually assaulted. The police very kindly overlooked his gun use, and it was presumably not put into the records. If you’ve done what you set out to do–saved yourself from harm–you’re not likely to further complicate your life by advising the police unless it’s unavoidable.

Polls are unreliable because people lie, particularly on matters that may carry a legal or social stigma; how many electoral “upsets” have we seen in recent years? Mr. Smith, as a professional pollster, is surely aware of that verity.