I love numbers.
From an early age, part of my love of baseball was a love of the numbers. Baseball, more than any other sport, is obsessed with numbers. We don’t just look at the big numbers like batting averages and winning percentages. We look at the numbers inside the numbers: batting average with men on base, or with two strikes, or on the first pitch. We don’t just count strikeouts, we count called strikes and swinging strikes. It’s endless and it’s wonderful.
As a Methodist minister I am required to submit a statistical report every year. We count everything: worship attendance, Sunday School enrollment, Sunday School teachers and Sunday School attendance, numbers of small groups, attendance at small groups, youth groups and youth group leaders, mission groups, Bible studies, and outreach ministries. I confess that I don’t love the statistical reports. The truth is, I hate them. But I still love numbers.
Recently, though, I have been looking at some other numbers that I don’t love at all. There are about 300,000,000 guns in the United States; almost one for every man, woman and child. And the numbers keep increasing. After the Newtown shootings, Americans bought more guns and more ammunition.
According to the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, about 5.5 million new firearms were manufactured in the United States and 95% of them were sold in the United State. In addition, approximately 3.3 million guns were imported. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) ran 16.5 million background checks for gun purchases and only about 78,000 were turned down. Because we have no federal (or state) gun registry, we have no idea whether or not the folks who were turned down already had guns at home.
Looking at the number of guns and the number of gun sales, and listening to the anecdotes supplied by the NRA about young moms buying guns and taking lessons in how to use them, it seems like the number of Americans owning firearms is continuing to increase, but new polling data says that’s not the whole story. The National Rifle Association has bullied congress into passing laws that make it almost impossible to keep any records at all, so many of the numbers are estimates.
According to the new polls, it looks like we have two trends going in opposite directions. For the last four decades the number of American households with guns has been steadily declining, while the total number of guns has gone up. In 1973 about 53% of American households had guns. Recently, that number has declined to about 33%. Among younger people, the decline in gun ownership is even more pronounced.
There are more guns, but fewer gun owners. Fewer people have more guns. If the numbers are accurate, then the average gun owner had about ten weapons.
We’ll pause for a moment to digest that last bit of data.
The idea that a small number of people are buying more and more guns is a little scary, but the long term implications are positive. Eventually, we will be able to institute reasonable gun control laws and reduce the number of gun related deaths. If we can’t be like England, maybe we can be like Australia.
In the meantime, I find myself pondering another number. There are about five million members in the NRA. I am amazed that such a small group can wield such incredible political power. And they are maintaining their influence while taking positions that are increasingly radical. Once they were in favor of universal background checks and now they are against them. They have even resisted preventing people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns.
The NRA has fewer members than the United Methodist Church in the United States. Admittedly, the numbers are not directly comparable. In the UMC families often have more than one member. In the NRA it’s more likely to be one member per family. And of course, there is some overlap of people who belong to both the UMC and the NRA. But still.
Everyone is afraid of the NRA. No one is afraid of the United Methodist Church. Part of that is because the NRA has one issue while we have many. And part of it is because the NRA is focused almost exclusively on public policy while we have a much broader range of concerns.
But still. Part of the problem is that we are not nearly as passionate about social justice, or economic inequality, or hungry children, or health care, as the NRA is about guns.