Women Make Up 12% Of NICS Gun Buyers
August 20, 2003

by Joseph P. Tartaro
Executive Editor

At last, there are some actual government numbers about the size of the female gun market, even if it’s only a snapshot in time.

It appears that almost one in every eight prospective gun buyers whose backgrounds were checked through the National Instant Check System (NICS) during at least one 80-day period this Spring was a woman.

This data came from the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division in response to an Apr. 22 query by Gun Week, and its sister publication, Women & Guns (W&G) magazine. These data include all transactions through licensed firearms dealers, including at gun shows, as well as the Point-of-Contact (POC) states, but not the secondary sales market involving transactions between private individuals.

There are a lot of reasons this information is important, but the most significant is that it provides for the first time credible data that will help settle a long-running debate over the size of the women’s firearm market. Most of the data that have been available are based on surveys and sampling.

When Women & Guns was first launched in 1989 it coincided with the special Ladysmith handgun introduction by Smith & Wesson (S&W). Smith, of course, had contracted with major research polling firms to do surveys of the potential market before the Ladysmith was launched. However, that was sampling data only no matter how scientifically the research was conducted, not actual raw numbers.

For its part, the Women & Guns start-up was based primarily on observed evidence of the presence of significant numbers of women at gun clubs and shooting ranges, at major competitions, and at pro-gun forums such as the annual Gun Rights Policy Conferences and National Rifle Association meetings. There was also plenty of historical evidence that women either owned guns, or had access to them in their homes, based on a number of sources, including surveys by general women’s magazines.

Anti-gun Claims
When W&G and S&W’s Ladysmith started getting a lot of media attention following the announcements, a number of academic researchers, some public opinion journals and the leading anti-gun organizations claimed that the new outreach to women was nothing more than a brazen attempt by the industry to prop up a faltering firearms market.

First they said that there was no women’s firearms market, and then they appealed to the Federal Trade Commission to impose a ban on gun advertising to women that claimed or implied that firearms were useful tools of self-defense. In fact, the anti-gunners more than suggested that women were not smart enough to evaluate the claims in firearms advertising.

They followed-up with statistical data suggesting that if there was a women’s firearms market it was very small, certainly much smaller than S&W’s data and other surveys that suggested it could be somewhere between 15 and 17% of the firearms-owning universe in the US.

The size of the women’s firearms market is one of the first questions raised by print and broadcast journalists when they contact Women & Guns or any other gun information resource. Of course, they are told that no one has a hard number because the government agencies traditionally have not segregated such data and neither have most states that issue concealed carry licenses.

At various times, Gun Week, Women & Guns and other gun publications have asked firearms manufacturers if they collect such data based upon their warranty registration cards. The answer is pretty standard. The numbers may be in the cards, but the sex of the buyer usually is not a question, and guessing at the sex of the buyer from the first names of buyers can be tricky and deceptive. On top of which, most companies said there was no reason for them to invest the money in retrieving such data.

But one of the places where the question about the sex of the prospective buyer must be answered is on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Form 4473 that is used as a purchase application that must be approved by the NICS system for all retail sales, including pawn shops, since November 1998. That system applies to all firearms—not just handguns—transactions that go through a federal licensee. There were 7.7 million transactions processed through NICS in 2000 and 8 million in 2001, the latest data available.

The NICS system involves different components. In the greatest number of states, all transactions must be cleared through the federal system in Clarksburg, WV. The participation by POC states varies. In some states, dealers go through a state version of NICS for all transactions. In others, for handguns only.

We theorized that if anyone could come up with some firm numbers, or at least the firmest possible numbers, regarding the size of the women’s firearms market, it would be the Justice Department, and that was why we queried them in April about demographic data of gun buyers and whether or not such data offered any information regarding trends.

The May 22 reply is quoted below:

“Reference is made to your letter dated April 22, 2003, regarding the percentage of female and male firearms purchasers through Federal Firearms Licensees. You also requested information regarding any trends in female vs. male firearms purchases which we do not track.

“Over the last 80 days, our statistics show that of all firearms purchases that have had background checks through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) including point-of-contact states, 88 percent were male and 12 percent were female. Statistics for program-to-date are not available since all ‘proceed’ transactions are automatically purged from the system 80 days after the transactions were set to proceed.”

If the 12% figure is relatively constant, that means that women bought about 1 million of the 8 million guns sold through dealers in 2001. That’s a sizable chunk of the total market.

The NICS figure suggests that the total women’s firearms market is significantly larger than 12% since it doesn’t include women who have owned guns for years and not purchased recently. It also does not include the guns purchased from non-licensees. And it does not include the guns that are available to women but are owned by other members of their households.

Still the May 22 NICS letter gives us all a hitching post.

Another source, the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA), provides some significant numbers and trend data, based on the trade association’s annual surveys.

The NSGA’s 2002 survey indicates that some 4.6 million women engage in target shooting, with an upward trend between 1997 and 2002 of 5.5%. The NSGA reports that 2.6 million women hunt with firearms and that the trend was also upward during the same five-year period, but at the lesser rate of 2.5%. A larger percentage of US women hunt with bows and arrows, but that is hunting and not just gun ownership.

Of course the NSGA data is not cumulative; you cannot add the women who target shoot to the number who hunt with firearms; in some cases it will be the same women who engage in both activities. And neither figure deals with the number of women who own firearms strictly for personal defense.

However, the numbers that are available tend to refute the claims of the anti-gunners. What is more, the poor turnouts at many of the recent rallies of the Brady Campaign’s “Million” Mom March division, suggest that women are not as attracted to the anti-gun campaign as avidly as they once might have been—and there is good reason to believe that the victim-oriented approach of the anti-gun zealots may never have been what was claimed by the organizers and their friends in the media.

The growing number of women gunowners and the steady growth of such groups as the Second Amendment Sisters are strong indicators of a healthy-sized and committed female segment of the total firearms community.

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