Bryan Caplan  

Gun Grabbing: A Reversal of Fortune

An Idea for Someone Looking fo... Paul Gregory's Case Against JF...
While reflecting on the Briggs-Tabarrok Effect, I stumbled across a shocking Gallup survey.  Back in 1959, Gallup started asking a random sample of Americans the following question:
What about the possession of pistols and revolvers -- do you think there should be a law which would forbid possession of this type of gun except by the police or other authorized person?
The question was slightly changed over the years.  Since 1980 it's been:
Do you think there should or should not be a law that would ban the possession of handguns, except by the police or other authorized persons?
The current breakdown is just what Europeans would expect of Cowboy Nation.  Only 25% of Americans say "Yes, should be" - versus 74% who say, "No, should not be."  But if you think this reflects a long-standing American tradition, you're dead wrong.  Back in 1959, the breakdown was 60% yes, 36% no.  Support for gun-grabbing fell almost non-stop during the ensuing decades, with just one odd reversal in 1979.  The full survey history, 1959-2013:


Gun rights activists might be tempted to invoke the Whig theory of history: Evidence and argument have slowly but surely won the day.  But as a general rule, I don't see the slightest reason to believe such stories.  More and better outreach?  Also hard to believe.  During my 18 non-libertarian years, I heard occasional anti-gun propaganda but no pro-gun propaganda. 

What's a better story?

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (55 to date)
Alex Tabarrok writes:

Rising crime rates.

Nicholas Weininger writes:

Declining general trust in government leading to declining support for strengthening its monopoly of force. My guess is that would fit the graph better than Alex's hypothesis: that crime rates rose for the three decades after 1959 but then went most of the way back down again, whereas disgust with, and distrust of, government have continued to increase, just as support for gun rights has. But I could be wrong. (Note that distrust of government does *not* give rise to general libertarianism, much as we might wish it did).

Alternatively, common lived experience. Plenty of large cities did in fact ban or nearly ban handgun possession, and people have seen that this doesn't do anything to make those cities safer places.

Kevin writes:

Alex Tabarrok wrote:

Rising crime rates.

Crime is down, I believe.

JKB writes:

I was curious about the 1979 anomaly. Turns out two big murderous events happened in November of 1978. The Jonestown suicides, but, also the San Francisco city hall murders. The latter was much promoted as anti-handgun propaganda, but the former could have also enhanced the sentiment.

Alex Godofsky writes:

Back in the 50s, had gun control yet crystallized as a culture war issue?

Do gun owners have more children?

Shane L writes:

Perhaps other developed countries moved towards gun control and gun rights became associated with American national identity? Thus over time people began to associate the freedom to own a firearm with American national identity, as opposed to the restrictive systems abroad.

Entirely a guess, of course.

michael svehla writes:

BC must have been busy inflating the bubble. NRA was very busy, their magazines were everywhere.

BC writes:

Why did Gallup start asking the question in 1959? Does that mark the beginning of a period in which a handgun/pistol/revolver ban became a politically plausible policy outcome? If so, then perhaps the subsequent rise in opposition to such a ban represents a decades long "backlash" of sorts. Perhaps, prior to the 1950s or so, people did not consider a gun ban to be very likely and, hence, did not think much about the consequences of an erosion of gun ownership rights. Some change occurred in the political landscape such that by 1959 a gun ban became a legitimate point of political debate, prompting Gallup to begin asking the question. The credible threat of a gun ban itself inspired increased advocacy by gun rights proponents, which has increased public apprehension about such a ban.

Daublin writes:

I have the same question as Alex, and I really don't know.

Note that the question is tautological if you read it literally. Should guns be limited to "authorized" people? What is "authorized"? Whatever the law is, that's what "authorized" will be. If you read the question literally, then almost anyone should answer this question as Yes.

That the poll has less than 50% saying yes suggests that people are reading this question in the culture-war sense. If you want a meatier answer, then you should probably ask about gun position for recreational use, self defense, and private security. I bet you would get near unanimity on most such questions, but where's the fun in that?

Lauren writes:

Fascinating question, asked by Alex Godofsky:

Back in the 50s, had gun control yet crystallized as a culture war issue?
I think that a major turning point affecting gun control at a cultural level only took hold in the late 1960s and early 1970s. My own perception is that it was associated with the spread of the hippie, anti-Vietnam war, anti-authority influence summarized by "Make Love, Not War".

For example, I do not recall anyone calling strongly for gun control after, say, JFK's assassination, Bobby Kennedy's assassination, or even after Martin Luther King's assassination. I do not even know if the summarizing term "gun control" existed till years later. But if not MLK, then Kent State was a major incident for many baby boomers as well as their parents, coming on the heels of those previously person-specific gun-related tragedies. And then the anti-Vietnam War efforts confirmed and solidified some of those various cultural themes--such as being anti-gun as being associated with being pro-peace and anti-war. Those thematic associations may not continue lockstep today, but I do think those are where the historical roots were for the broader cultural appeals of being anti-gun--meaning pro-government gun control as opposed to a personal choice to find gun ownership unappealing.

So, since you are asking about culture, I think it wasn't until the late '60s or early '70s when the cultural thread gathered enough steam to be what might be called a pervasive or sustaining cultural theme. It's not that the idea of reducing the number of guns was never mentioned before that. It's more like it didn't have any cultural traction. Or such is my recollection, as a baby-boomer growing up in the Northeast in that time period.

Addendum: Looking at the chart above, the crossing of the lines between Yes and No is right around 1967--consistent with my memory of when the voices for gun control started gaining enough attention to perhaps be called a cultural influence. The dots in the chart don't seem to offer any detail between 1963 and 1975. I don't think just connecting the dots over those formative years offers much information about the exact years in which the crossover might have taken place; but there seems to be no question that there was a crossover.

Various writes:

I can think of a few possible answers. Most relate to the differences between handguns and other types of firearms:

1. Most experienced gun owners know that handguns are inferior to rifles and shotguns for defense purposes. I would guess that the proportion of the population that had significant experience with firearms was much higher in 1959 than it is today. Think of all the ex servicemen that had served in WWII and Korea. Among this cohort, pistols were considered far inferior to rifles and shotguns. These people might therefore have thought that most people had no legitimate self defense need for pistols. Substitute the word "rifle" or "shotgun" into the survey and I think the trend you observe would disappear.

2. The whole concealed carry debate is a recent phenomenon. People who responded to the earlier surveys might have inferred from the question that carrying a concealed weapon was implied in pistol ownership. Back in the day, a gun owner acquired a pistol only because it was portable and concealable. Today, many people buy pistols for other reasons. Today, the concepts of pistol ownership and concealed carry are viewed as separate issue by most people.

3. I think that the ratio of pistols to other kinds of guns was probably lower during the 1950s and 1960s than it is today. This may have been so because most pistols are not suitable for hunting, whereas most rifles and shotguns are. Remember that our society has become progressively wealthier since 1959, which means that in real terms, firearms were much more expensive in 1959 than they are today. Consequently, if you were looking to buy a few guns in 1959, chances were that you wanted to acquire guns that could be used for both hunting and self defense, not just self defense. In addition, hunting was much more popular in the 1950s and 1960s than it is today, which likely also skewed the mix of guns purchased towards rifles and shotguns. Because of this lopsided mix, many gun owners may have questioned why a law abiding citizen, other than a police officer, would have a need for a pistol. See item 4.

4. Pistols may have had a stigma attached to them that rifles and shotguns did not. For example, there may have been a perception that pistols were only owned by police and criminals, and perhaps that stigma has dissipated. Just guessing on this one.

JKB writes:
Most experienced gun owners know that handguns are inferior to rifles and shotguns for defense purposes.

Only if you are doing defense at a distance which is problematic in the "imminent threat" criteria of justifiable self defense.

Otherwise, a handgun, though less powerful, is the personal self defense weapon. Those returning servicemen would have known this since handguns are issued for personal defense being easy to carry about the body and maneuverable in close quarters. This is exactly why law enforcement carry handguns instead of rifles and shotguns when not in active use of force situations.

JKB writes:

Unfortunately, the data don't show when the decline in the popularity of handgun control started. It would be interesting to see if the decline was initiated by the FDR admin push for gun control that gave us the federal firearms license scheme. Handguns were to be included in that but was a bridge to far. It is why short barreled rifles were included and you can't have a fore stock or grip on a handgun (without a license).

A incongruity would be that gun control got its start in California during the Reagan governorship when the Black Panthers started lawfully openly carrying firearms and observing police interaction with African Americans. I believe they also carried these firearms into the state capitol prompting gun control legislation by legislators fearful of black men with guns.

So a link to the growing civil rights movement seems to be hard to sustain. Perhaps if you separate individual opinions from government official fears?

GinSlinger writes:

The key word is certainly "authorized." I suspect the poll results reflect the decoupling of firearm restrictions and racism. et al.

Various writes:

Demographics and changing consumer tastes probably also play a role. Back in the day, gun owners were dominated by white males, many of whom had prior military service or were hunters. Few women owned or used guns. Many women depended upon their husband or boyfriend to defend them. Today there is a higher proportion male gun owners with no service or hunting tradition (think Bill Maher), and many women are now either gun owners, or would consider gun ownership. Among this group, pistols are preferred over rifles and shotguns for a variety of reasons, but mostly because they appear to be more user friendly. Most women don't want to go anywhere near a rifle or shotgun. Think of Joe Biden's comment about owning a shotgun. His statement resonates with older male gun owners. To the younger generation and most women, it sounds like Greek.

Jeff writes:

To go along with Alex's point, the urban riots of the 1960's probably had something to do with it. The possibility of not just crime, but mob violence and mass lawlessness coming to a city near you probably had a profound effect on the average citizens' view of whether giving police a monopoly on the use and possession of handguns was a good idea.

shecky writes:

Perception of rising crime rates may account for some of this. Even though violent crime rates have fallen for twenty years, I believe the average person is convinced of the opposite.

Oddly, (or perhaps not), gun control seems to have been fairly popular when targeted to appeal to safe majority constituents, such as the Mulford Act of 1967.

Gun rights also had yet to be forged into the modern culture war canon in 1959. Same as other modern culture war causes such as reproductive rights, civil rights, etc.

Also, pro gun rights propaganda has been around for a long time. But I think it's gotten loopier and more paranoid in modern times, and relies on lore and cultural identification more than ever.

Glen Smith writes:

Declining trust in government, especially a government run by the "other guys". Also, look at how people often react when propaganda against what they do is rampant (in this case anti-gun propaganda) as we often steer strongly the opposite direction (at least in what we say). Understanding that "authorized to use" is a far different thing than "not disallowed to use" (that is, you may be able to take away a right but you can't give it to me).

Alex Godofsky writes:

Lauren, thanks for recounting your own memory of the issue. I think that's the only way we'd really be able to answer this question.

sourcreamus writes:

Crime rates tripled during the sixties and almost doubled during the seventies. During that time gun rights approval went from 36% to 66%. I then see a big discontinuity went the wording changes from pistols and revolvers to handguns. Maybe people associated that word with uzis or Saturday night specials. As familarity with the term grows it becomes less scary and support goes back up. It looks like it has only gone up 9% since 1979. All of the bad things people said would happen absent gun control have not happened so people have adjusted their views.

Timothy writes:

My theory is this: in 1959 most Americans would probably agree to a statement like "Most people who live in America are like me," and I doubt that's true anymore. I think America's lower level of homogeneity both racially and economically (i.e. inequality), as well as urbanization (not knowing your neighbors), facilitate a fear of other people.

Arthur_500 writes:

The gangster indiscriminate spraying of bullets from Tommy Guns led to the first gun control. Short barreled guns (never decided in the Court because the gangster whose case was being considered died), silencers and machine guns were deemed special and needed government approval.

Interestingly, the purpose of the Second Amendment is to control the Government, not the other way around.

In 1968 we dusted off the Nazi Gun Control Act and pushed it through here in the United States. This was the start of Gun Registration and intrusion into the handguns regarding ownership and safety (of manufacture).

Humans are indeed of the intelligence of sheep as described in the bible. Certainly not a noteworthy description. But we react to incidents, especially when those incidents are blown out of proportion by a media raking in the money on the hype.

I would postulate that the Clinton gun ban was not only a failure but focused many people on the ownership of those banned items. since then, the deterioration of trust in government coupled with the increased schism between the Socialists and non-socialists in our society have led to a greater awareness of the Second Amendment.

In the 1950's you trusted, maybe even feared your government. By the time of the new millennia we no longer trust our government and fear those who want to take away the foundations of our Country.

Crime is down. Gun ownership is up. Firearm training is better than ever before. Fewer people have participated in the military and even fewer have actually gone to war. The enemy is no longer perceived as foreign and people want to preserve their liberty.

Jeff writes:

Ditto Alex, although possibly from a different angle.

How about this hypothesis: Crime rates were higher, and growing, at the time of the anti-gun peak. In response, voters on average would rather that statutorily only law enforcement have access to firearms. As gun related crime fell, recreational use would rise; added costs to recreation is not so well received.


rvman writes:

That weird dip isn't in 1979. It is in 1980. 1979 is the peak. The "odd reversal" is the effect of the "slight change" in question. Moral: If you want a clean time series, change NOTHING on a survey question without extensive testing on the new question. Preferably run both questions in parallel for a while, to get a feel for the nuances.

Jacob writes:

Average is over; haven't you heard?

john personna writes:

The unrestricted right to small arms ended in 1934. That's when they took away our tommy guns(*). Since then it has been negotiation.

For a while that negotiation centered on pistols, especially cheap revolvers. Then assault rifles came to the fore.

What we have, is a battle centered on a different focus.

* - special licensing still permitted.

Floccina writes:

There seems to have been a sharp increase in homicides in the mid 1960's, I would bet on that and maybe civil rights plus integration and the growth of white people's fear of blacks.

Bryan Pick writes:

What probably changed a large number of those minds was greater familiarity with handguns, either by owning one or knowing someone who did. Handgun ownerships rates vastly increased starting in the 1950s and accelerating in the late '70s.

Bryan Pick writes:

Err, that was supposed to say "late '60s."

P G writes:

It's kinda hard to even guess at this unless we know why people care about gun control in the first place.

This post here:

At the end it shows that 60% of people own guns for "personal protection". That's the closest proxy I've found so far, ideally we'd want to know in the 60s why people favored gun control and why they opposed it (breakdown) and now.

If gun control is largely seen as a personal protection issue, maybe it's related to a real or perceived increase in the animosity between police and citizens. With the rise of the drug war and the culture wars in the 60s, I think that people have been increasingly skeptical that police are able or willing to protect them. It may be that people increasingly would prefer to have a gun than have to rely on the police to come help them. Add in to that increases in perceived real dangers due to increasing access to the media (which skews towards the violent) and people may just be making the calculation, "I'd rather be able to get a gun to protect myself since no one else is going to do it."

That may all be wishful thinking, though. It would help to have some information on the other side - whether the reasons that people support gun control have changed over time and what those reasons are.

chipotle writes:


Since this is EconLog, I'd like to add a very simple (reductionist) economic story.

  • Guns are a "normal good." This means that as the population gets wealthier, demand for guns goes up. As more people can afford them, more guns are produced and sold. Due to their high level of durability, these guns remain in circulation for a long time on average.
  • Each person who owns a gun is an ambassador, witting or unwitting. Thus, as gun ownership spreads to more people, even more people know about someone who owns a gun. Since most people who own guns are responsible (cf. the low ratio of ownership to acts of violence among gun owners), the net effect is to drive home the message that gun owner != killer.
  • Between spreading gun ownership and the wider reach of mass media, both the reality and the news of gun ownership increases.

tl;dr -

1. Real declin in the price of guns + the law of demand
2. The spread of responsible gun ownership
3. Increased awareness of #2 + economic growth = positive feedback loop.

OccamsSideburns writes:

One area to consider would be urbanization.

For example, perhaps hunting licenses and places to hunt were more common as a percentage of the population in the 50's and 60's, so many people owned rifles and shotguns, and had less need for a handgun.

As more people began living in urban areas, and wildlands and places to hunt disappeared under malls and freeways, rifles and shotguns had less utility, could be considered more powerful than necessary for urban self-defense and were more cumbersome to carry, store, transport, etc.

Handguns might be considered a more practical tool for urban self-defense in a modern information type economy where hunting is not only not necessary, but is actually a very expensive and time consuming hobby for most participants, and so the idea of lugging a shotgun or rifle around would be less popular now.

I'm sure there are many things relating to this change in opinion, but the simple practical utility and convenience of the modern 15- or 20- shot handgun could be a large part of the answer.


LarryArnold writes:

Since the late 1940s the National Rifle Association has expanded their basic firearm beginning shooter classes. Currently there are over 130,000 certified instructors. About the same time state wildlife agencies began teaching hunter education classes. More recently organizations like 4-H have initiated youth programs in marksmanship, and Becoming an Outdoors-Woman started introducing women to outdoor programs, including shooting.

Learning to shoot immunizes one against gun control.

blakdawg writes:

See for background on the Gun Control Act of 1968 and gun control politics/culture in 1960's.

Jeff Woods writes:

Hypotheses for the unexpected trend:

- In 1959 and the 1960s most adults were vary familiar with the gun battles fought on the streets of Chicago and NYC by organized crime and the FBI, perhaps sensationalized by the media (both news and entertainment, presuming there is a difference). Since 1959 the percentage of adults who personally remember Prohibition and the results of criminalizing a common behavior of the vast majority of citizens.

- The NRA etc. are winning the propaganda battle for mindshare, even if the politicians are still listening to the most strident voices. (E.g. "What about the children?!")

- Government (especially at the federal level) is steadily becoming ever more pervasive, coercive, and onerous. Perhaps more people have come to understand that the real purpose of the 2nd Amendment is for the citizens as a whole to act as a bulwark against tyranny from our own government. (Personally, I doubt most folks understand this crucial point, but maybe I'm wrong.)

As usual, the truth is likely a blend of these and other factors.

Craig Miller writes:

I'd say you have to consider demographic trends too. The curve looks suspiciously similar to the baby boom trajectory. Older people may be more inclined to support gun ownership-that's just a hypothesis.

Popular culture certainly plays a role in normalizing firearms, particularly hand guns. The proliferation of movies coincides with.

There so much more data needed to make sense of the data with any degree of certainty

luagha writes:

Even though the overall measured crime rate is down, the anecdotal crime rate is obviously up.

Because of the greater penetration of local news nationally due to the Internet and all other kinds of greatly increased communication, Americans learn about all kinds of hideous crimes in other places in the country that would have previously not been 'newsworthy' to them.

But if it bleeds it leads. Violence sells and the news media's natural peddling of these anecdotes makes us fearful. It makes us all believe that the crime rate is up, because so many people are complaining about it.

Thus, we all decide that we need to protect ourselves, and the first way to do that is to get a pistol and learn how to use it.

MSO writes:

The television came of age in the 1950's bringing America into the living room. The Lone Ranger, Hop-A-Long Cassidy, Roy Rogers, etc. were all popular heroes of the time.

Chris writes:

It sounds like you have lots of good reasons for the survey results you are seeing. It's probably some complicated combination of some of these reasons.

Bit I'm kinda curious.... which part of this do you consider "shocking"? The fact that 60% of those surveyed in the 50s were naive enough to believe in handgun bans? or that only 25% want it today?

Joe Horton writes:

After people figured out that it's a good idea to defend themselves, crime rates declined. Once it fell, folks still remember why it did , so they keep the deterrent on hand. Seems pretty simple, actually.


Leo Marvin writes:

I'm not old enough to have had an opinion on the matter in 1959, but I did support handgun control 30-40 years ago*, and I oppose it now. The main reasons for my change of opinion are:

1. When owning a gun is criminal, only criminals will own guns (or however that old saw goes). I dispute that that's always necessarily so, but with as many guns today as there are people in this country, it's certainly true now. I can't say when we passed the point of no return, but we're there. So I may not like it, but the cows are out of the barn, there's no getting the toothpaste back in the tube, and all the other appropriate metaphors. I still support universal background checks, and I'm ambivalent about magazine restrictions, but I believe trying to seriously reduce the number of handguns or handgun owners is barely rational any more.

2. Heller. I disagree with much of the reasoning, but for some reason I wasn't consulted. So what was arguably unprotected pre-Heller, handgun ownership is now unambiguously a Constitutional right -- and the Constitution matters. So even if I thought there was meaningful potential value to broadly restricting handgun ownership, I couldn't support it without amending the Constitution. And I'm disinclined to amend the Constitution to enact a restriction I doubt will confer any benefit.

[*FWIW, I'm a former NRA member. I've owned guns for 40 years, handguns for 20. To answer one obvious question, when I still believed handgun control laws might be worthwhile, I'd have gladly surrendered my own toward the effort.]

Tarrou writes:

I think Godofsky has the right of it. In the 1950s through the '70s, gun control was more of a right-wing issue used to exert control on blacks. Even in the '80s, it was bipartisan (Brady). In the early '90s the worm turned with Ruby Ridge and Waco.

People learned that all this benevolent gun control hadn't reduced crime (though crime would start falling right about then, ironically). The federal government was so upset about a sawed-off shotgun they would shoot mothers holding babies and burn children to death.

Conversely, I believe left-wingers began to see gun control not as a crime-reduction tool primarily, but a weapon against the sort of people involved in those incidents. Rural, religious, possibly racist right-wing nutjobs. The message to the right was: "you could be next". The message to the left was: "the right could be next".

Gun control became decoupled from its crime-fighting intent. "Assault weapons" became the focus even though they are vanishingly rare in crimes. They are quite popular with anti-government militia types.

It is my thesis that this shift in focus from the crime problem (handguns) to the cultural war (assault rifles) is also responsible for at least part of the shift in popularity shown in the graph. And though the lines had already crossed, you will note after '91, the divergence starts increasing rapidly.

Brett Bellmore writes:

A preference cascade. Over the relevant time period, the establishment media, (Large newspapers, magazines, broadcast media.) have been losing their capacity to project the illusion that everybody, and certainly every decent person, supports gun control. Expressions of opposition to gun control have increasingly leaked past the artificial media consensus.

So people, who all along opposed gun control, but who were leery of publicly stating what they had been deceived into thinking were extreme minority views, are are more open about what they really think. Resulting in more expressions of public opposition to gun control, resulting in more confidence to express that opposition... A positive feedback loop.

Actual public opinion probably hasn't changed all that much in the last fifty plus years. Public opinion in America was always against gun control. We just get to SEE that today.

Robert writes:

Like Craig Miller, my 1st thought went toward the aging of the popul'n, and that old people might want pistols to protect themselves vs. young hoodlums. Other than that, self-identif'n in culture war, "My kind of people answer [yes/no], so that's my answer too."

Too bad the data pts. are few & far between before 1975, but the consistency of the connecting line leads me to doubt "goodies" would've been revealed by polling then. How often do you see such a monotonic & sustained trend? If you calculated (d/dt("yes"))/"yes" I think it'd be even more remarkably constant as to rate of change, following a 1st-order kinetics (logarithmic decay); it makes sense that in absolute numbers as you run out of people saying "yes" it'd be harder for people in aggregate to change their minds to "no". Looks like a 50-year half-time, which means another 50 years to get down to 15% "yes".

Brad writes:

I think several factors are at work here.

First off the sharp kink in the slope of the graph in 1979 probably reflects the changed wording of the poll question. But what explains the general slope?

I think the slope is due to the pushing of the gun issue by both sides. As they simultaneously had successes of a sort which overlapped each other at the same time.

In 1959 the idea of a national handgun ban was probably not even considered a serious topic, despite the gradual turning of the screws of gun control over the early decades of the 20th century which focused on restricting gun ownership by minorities and immigrants. But the chaos of growing crime rates and assassinations of the 1960's, created a crisis which many states and the federal government took advantage of to pass new laws which greatly changed the nature of the American firearm market. And with a promise of more laws to come, such as a ban on handguns.

This naturally enough provoked a backlash from the pro-gun side. The NRA changed into a powerhouse lobby group. Private citizens started buying handguns in ever greater proportion to other firearms. And a movement began to reform state laws which prevented ordinary people from carrying handguns for self-defense.

These opposite trends had their greatest period of overlap in 1994 as the federal ban on so-called "assault weapons" followed several states which had recently passed similar laws. But the public was then buying handguns and rifles at panic levels and more and more states were reforming concealed carry laws.

So that is how you end up with today's conditions. The AR-15 is now the most popular rifle sold in America, with copies made by virtually all the gun-companies. Handguns form the bulk of the growth of firearm purchases since the sixties. Only a tiny number of states have significant restrictions on firearms. But those states which do are blue states with the most draconian anti-gun laws ever in force in American history.

If this real world evidence comports with the Whig theory, maybe the Whig theory is correct in this instance.

Brad writes:
Gun rights activists might be tempted to invoke the Whig theory of history: Evidence and argument have slowly but surely won the day. But as a general rule, I don't see the slightest reason to believe such stories. More and better outreach? Also hard to believe. During my 18 non-libertarian years, I heard occasional anti-gun propaganda but no pro-gun propaganda.

Regarding propaganda, maybe what you heard was due to living in California, ground zero of the anti-gun movement during those 18 years.

The movement of majority opinion on a handgun ban, even if that majority were low information uninvolved voters, was no doubt influenced by the very highly motivated small factions which battled to sway public opinion over the last 50 years. The anti-gun side had on their side the power of money and megaphones, with big-government politicians and with the overwhelming support of the national news media organs. But the pro-gun side had the advantage of the power of the vote, since they outnumbered the anti-gun side by about 10 to 1.

I base my estimation of the difference in motivated pro-gun vs anti-gun voters upon the relative claimed memberships of HCI vs the NRA during the peak year of HCI membership. The actual proportion of pro-gun voters is probably around 10% of all voters, based on the estimate that about 10% of the American public own more than 70% of all the guns in America.

If my estimates are accurate, that means that the battle over gun-control was a battle between two tiny minority factions of American voters. 1% of the voters motivated to push for ever greater gun restrictions up to and including a ban on handguns, and 10% of the voters resisting because that 10% were the direct targets of anti-gun legislation. It was a simple political battle of self-defense, a battle which the anti-gun side was doomed to lose in the long run because they were out-numbered and out-motivated.

"Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."
~ quoted in James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson

ThomasH writes:

I think that more people have realized that prohibition of handguns is not the most cost effective way of reducing gun violence as it does not take into account that some people can use handgns effectively in self defense. A gun-specific competency (plus mental stability, etc.) requirement would be much better.

pst314 writes:

"During my 18 non-libertarian years, I heard occasional anti-gun propaganda but no pro-gun propaganda"

Maybe this was a result of where you worked and with whom you socialized? I never heard any pro-gun opinions during my years in academia. Never.

John Schilling writes:

Differing interpretations of "other authorized persons" may play a role. In 1959, that may well have been interpreted as "any middle-class white person who bothers to fill out the paperwork, but obviously not the darkies." Or, more generally, an invitation for the respondent to imagine his or her own idealized set of gun laws and simplify to "authorized persons can have pistols."

From the 1960s on, we have increasing numbers of actual gun control laws for potential respondents to compare to, and it is increasingly clear that those "other authorized persons" live on the far side of a wall of bureaucracy impassable to me and thee.

Bryan E. writes:

In the 50's and early 60's there was no perceived need for a handgun for most people. And if someone wanted a handgun, it was easily bought in a sporting goods store, pawn shop or mail order. Handguns were used by police, mobsters, and city gangs. Society wasn't integrated. Each city had its Polish, Italian, Irish, German, Swedish neighborhood where the extended family was often within blocks of each other. People were comfortable with their neighborhood. The local policeman was friendly and often a friend who would take you home if he found you drunk.
The late 60's and after changed that. Kent State, race riots, forced bussing, car jacking. The neighborhood was no longer as comfortable. The police lost their ability to make judgement calls because of mandatory procedures. The police were no longer as friendly and began to take on a military look. The government became increasingly restrictive in everyday life and with firearms. At the same time that people thought they needed more protection, the ability to buy a handgun for protection was being restricted, and maybe taken away. No one wanted to be left defenseless in a world where they weren't sure about their fellow citizens and very doubtful about their government. "Get a gun while you can" is the thought today.

Jack Miller writes:

We are really talking about the wealth and health effect. Once a nation is healthier, the psychological need to have lots of children goes away but the safety of the few kids does become all the more important. Wealthier people have all sorts of "extra" possessions. A set of skis, a bowling ball, fancy cameras and more--why not include a high dollar pistol in the mix?

Everett Walker writes:
Kevin writes: Alex Tabarrok wrote:

Crime is down, I believe.

That is the long term trend.

The handgun ban movement didn't start in the 50s. They were almost included in the prohibitive taxes attached to registering machinguns when the first National Firearms Act passed in 1932. The Communist Party came out in favor of banning handguns -believing they had achieved mainstream political status. The association scared elected politicans away from the measure that would have effectively outlawed handguns along with machine guns, silencers and several other things.

While anti-liberty leftists were seldom aware of opposition to gun control- the media effectively saturating both news and entertainment programing with anti-gun propaganda, there seems to have been a reaction among the general populace to the strident bullying of the democratic party/far left on the subject of gun ownership and other traditional liberties. Sometimes they forgot that they were after Handguns/ "Cheap, Easily Concealed Handguns!, and included all firearms in their demands. At one time, Social Uplift and Anti-Freedom movements were the province of the Churches. The so called Liberals, considering themselves progressive, sophisticated and enligthend pretty much declared war on practicing Christians and Jews making them enemies and causing them to take a critical look at the collectivist prescriptions for Social Salvation-including gun confiscation.

James A. Donald writes:

Duh! It is the anarcho tyranny. Everything is illegal, except crime, which is legal.

Murder and such is still effectively illegal, but an ever increasing number of petty and not so petty crimes are effectively legal. People feel menaced.

[broken url fixed. Next time, please check that your links work when you preview!--Econlib Ed.]

Benquo writes:

Maybe there is a fixed distribution of beliefs about how much gun control is appropriate, and an increase in gun control means more people qualify as "against" relative to before.

In other words, more people say we should have less, because now we have more than we did before.

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