MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
A new national survey on gun ownership indicates that 37 percent of U.S. households have guns. The Pew Research Center looked further into who owns guns and why. They surveyed about 1,500 Americans last month and Michael Dimock, the Pew Center's director, joins me to talk about what they found. Michael, welcome back.
MICHAEL DIMOCK: Hi.
BLOCK: Let's look at that 37 percent number first. These are people who report having a gun in their household, a gun either owned by them or by someone else.
DIMOCK: That's right. That's right. About 24 percent of Americans say they themselves own a gun. Another 13 percent live in a household where somebody else owns a gun.
BLOCK: This is a tricky number to get a handle on, right? How reliable do you think those numbers are? Because there are conflicting data on this.
DIMOCK: It is a surprising difficult question to get a good read on. You'd think it would be very concrete but it's not. And you have very different findings from different polls. The General Social Survey has probably one of the most reliable long-term trends on this and they've shown a decline in gun ownership rates, both personal and at the household level, over the past 40 years.
But the Gallup organization has also asked this question for 40 years and they've seen no decline in the rate of gun ownership and they get different proportions saying they have guns in their home. I think some of the complication is, some people may or may not be aware of guns, not just they don't know that it's there at all, but they may have forgotten about it. Some people have inherited a gun from their father. It's an old hunting rifle. It's out in the barn. I think there are different ways people know about guns or think about guns that make it an actually more difficult thing to measure than you'd think. But I think it's safe to say that most Americans today don't have a gun in their home.
BLOCK: I wonder if there would people who might not want to tell people they have a gun in the home, might be reluctant to divulge that information.
DIMOCK: I think it's a possibility. I mean, there are stereotypes associated with gun ownership and there's also a privacy issue. There may be some people who don't want to talk about it.
BLOCK: Or if you have any concerns that your guns might be confiscated, maybe that would be one question you wouldn't want to answer.
DIMOCK: That's true.
BLOCK: Well, of the gun owners whom you surveyed, who are they? What did you learn about them? What are the demographics?
DIMOCK: Well, the demographics are about what you'd expect. There's an enormous gender gap in gun ownership. Men are far more likely to own guns than women. That means that among gun owners, about 74 percent of gun owners are men and only 26 percent of gun owners are women. There's also an enormous divide along racial and ethnic lines.
Whites are far more likely to own a gun than minority groups are. And you also see a big age disparity. Younger folks are less likely to own guns than older Americans. And regional differences; South and Midwest, a little more likely to own guns than in the Northeast, but more so along an urban/rural dimension, much more prevalent in rural areas.
BLOCK: You asked people what the main reason is that the own a gun and you saw a pretty big shift on that, an interesting shift.
DIMOCK: Yes, yes. About 15 years ago, most people who own a gun told us that the main reason they had it was for hunting. Well, it was about half, 49 percent said hunting was the main reason they had a gun. Twenty-six percent said it was for protection. Those numbers have basically flipped around today. We have about half, 48 percent of gun owners, saying that protection now is the main reason that they have their gun and hunting has declined as a focus.
Other data suggests that just fewer Americans hunt these days.
BLOCK: You also asked women gun owners their thoughts on having guns and what did they tell you?
DIMOCK: Right. Well, again, women are far less likely to own guns, but if they do, they overwhelmingly cite protection as the main reason they have it. Again, I think that may reflect that women are less likely to be hunters as much as that they're more likely to be concerned about safety.
BLOCK: And they say 80 percent of them said having a gun makes them feel safer.
DIMOCK: Right. And we find that to be a very, very broad attitude, not only among gun owners, but even among people who live in a household where somebody else owns a gun, that people tend to feel that the gun makes them safer. They feel safer by having it in the household.
By contrast, people without a gun in the household, most of them say they'd be uncomfortable having a gun and the main reason they give is that they're worried about the safety of having a gun in the household. So the division in perspectives on how guns relate to our safety is really, really stark.
BLOCK: Michael Dimock, director of the Pew Research Center, thanks very much.
DIMOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.