There are more guns -- but fewer gun owners

Shawn Cavana, a member of the NRA who says he personally owns an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, looks into the closed Riverview Gun Sales shop while gun shopping with friends on Dec. 21, 2012 in East Windsor, Conn.

America's about to engage a new national conversation about guns. In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., tragedy, President Obama has his staff exploring "concrete recommendations" on gun policy when the new Congress begins next month.

The National Rifle Association is talking, too. Sunday, NRA's executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, said new gun controls will not "make one difference." But the NRA's challenge is, its target demographic is shrinking.

In 1980, half of American households said they owned a gun; today it's a third. There are many factors experts offer, including more households headed by single women, the absence of a draft introducing young people to guns, fewer Americans living in rural places.

"If the culture that supports gun ownership is itself changing," says New York University political scientist Patrick Egan, "then that's a challenge for any membership organization that is trying to speak -- not only to those prospective members -- but also to the broader society at large."

Egan says gun ownership is also more partisan, as fewer Democrats nowadays own guns.

A rational reaction would be to target the niche. And NRA critic Josh Sugarman at the Violence Policy Center thinks the association is doing that; he says it's relying less on contributions from gun owners, and more on money from manufacturers and distributors.

"They're now forced to identify new funding sources and new funding pools," Sugarman says. "And that's the gun industry. Today's NRA is a wholly owned subsidiary of the gun industry."

Sugarman's research has found the NRA has more corporate partnerships than before. He argues that puts the group in a tough position: assault weapons are big sellers. So reinstating a federal ban would undercut a key contributor.

Still, no one's counting the NRA out in the short run, especially when gun owners feels under siege.

"At the moment when the threat is pretty much at Defcon 5," says former NRA lobbyist Richard Feldman, now running the rival Independent Firearm Owners Association. "I expect to see NRA's membership climb to well over five million. It might approach six million."

Feldman says the NRA thrives on crisis moments, even as demographic trends may work against it.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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