Money  /  Study

America Fell for Guns Recently, and for Reasons You Will Not Guess

The US today has extraordinary levels of gun ownership. But to see this as a venerable tradition is to misread history.

While an increase in crime and a decline in trust in the US government may have contributed to the surge in gun demand, this can’t be the full story. It’s true that the US gun stock rapidly rose during this period, however historical data from the US Department of Justice indicates that the rate of families reporting gun ownership remained stable or even declined during the 1960s and early ’70s. Moreover, our newly compiled gun ownership data going back to 1949 further challenge this explanation, pointing to an inflection point in earlier decades.

To understand the real origins of the exceptional gun culture of the US, we needed to look further back in time. Our research reveals a puzzling new trajectory: a remarkable 45 per cent increase in the household gun ownership rate from 1949 to 1990, peaking during 1990. To our surprise, more than half of this rise occurred before 1973, a period previously obscured by the lack of systematic data on gun prevalence. These new data provide a crucial historical perspective, showing that the surge in gun prevalence started before the period marked by rising crime and falling trust. In fact, our measure shows an uptick in gun prevalence beginning in the 1950s, a period defined by low homicide rates and peak trust in government, prompting questions about why and how more households acquired guns during a period of relative calm.

We examined the factors that were most connected to state-level increases in these rates from 1949 to 1990, the decades in which household gun ownership steadily rose and when the exceptional US gun culture took shape. We tested several different variables that could have contributed to this rise – including demographic shifts, rising crime, racial conflicts, changes in education and civil unrest, among others. We controlled for state and year differences within our sample, as is convention in scientific studies on gun ownership over time, to ensure that we weren’t comparing states with other states that have drastically different populations and gun traditions, or that the results weren’t skewed by specific years that were outliers in the data.

Of all the potential explanations we tested, we discovered that the post-Second World War economic boom and relaxed federal gun regulations most drove the surge in demand for guns. As unemployment rates decreased and incomes increased, firearms – once deemed a luxury or practical necessity – grew within reach for more and more Americans. Simultaneously, cultural attitudes surrounding gun ownership may have shifted, as multiple generations of Americans returning from the Second World War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War became accustomed to owning and using guns.