A more diverse group of people, including core Democratic constituencies, took up the shooting sports in recent years, according to a biennial survey released Tuesday by the firearm industry’s trade group.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation’s survey, which covers the year 2022, adds new clarity to a trend that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic: Firearm use continues to grow, with new interest coming from women, liberals, younger people, urbanites and people of color.
That trend might complicate the polarized politics of gun reform in coming years, as firearm use becomes more widespread among Democratic voters, who have historically supported restrictions aimed at ensuring public safety.
“Across all walks of life, all political persuasions, all lifestyles, we’re seeing a growing acceptance and participation in gun ownership and the shooting sports,” said NSSF spokesman Mark Oliva. “Today’s gun owner, today’s recreational shooter, is more like everyone else in America.”
Some 25% of American adults went sport or target shooting over the two-year period, which the survey projects to a whopping 63.5 million people ― up from 34 million back in 2009, when the biennial surveys began.
But the percentage of new shooters, defined as those who shot a gun for the first time in at least five years, jumped five points to 17%, compared to the last survey in 2020. And more significantly, the percentage of new shooters who identified as Democrats nearly doubled to 31% — more than 3 million people.
Female new shooters also saw major gains, jumping from 17% of new shooters in 2020 to 25% in 2022. A quarter of new shooters live in urban or suburban areas, marking a 71% rise. The survey also showed marginal increases of firearm use among Black (2%) and Hispanic (1%) shooters.
Vernice Howard (right) who started classes after a neighbor was assaulted at gunpoint, prepares to fire a Glock handgun as firearms instructor Taniece Reed, CEO and founder of Pretty Shooters Firearms Training, looks on at the Maryland Small Arms Range in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, on March 19, 2023.
New shooters typically cited self defense as their primary reason for taking up firearms. Nearly one-third of them said the COVID-19 pandemic, which drove a historic gun-buying frenzy, played a role in their decision to shoot guns. New shooters were more likely to shoot handguns and less likely to hunt than established shooters.
Those trends appear to be shifting what the average shooter looks like. Women now make up nearly one-third of shooters, compared to a quarter back in 2009. Younger shooters aged 18-34 made up the largest share of those surveyed, edging out middle-aged shooters for the first time in the survey’s history.
Regardless of the changing demographics of gun use, public support remains high even among firearm owners for big ticket safety measures like universal background checks and wider adoption of “red flag” laws, according to Chris Harris, vice president of communications for the reform group, Giffords Law Center.
“No one wants to worry about a loved one being shot at school, work, a theater, or while shopping,” Harris wrote in an email. “We have long known that gun safety solutions like background checks and red flag laws are already popular with gun owners and non-owners alike.”
Politics does still appear to have some influence on the types of firearms people shoot, however. Only 5% of shooters who identified as Democrats shot the semi-automatic rifles that the party is widely committed to banning or restricting, compared to 14% of Republican shooters.
And while the steady rise in firearm use in recent years is good news for the firearms industry, the survey contains a silver lining for reformers: Only about half of people who live in a household with a firearm went target shooting. And about one-fifth of people who went shooting in 2022 said they did not expect to go again in the next two years, which the survey described as “a substantial challenge for retention programs.”
Still, the raw volume of gun sales indicates that firearms are becoming a more embedded feature of American life.
FBI background checks for gun purchases — the closest way to estimate gun sales, which are not tracked — skyrocketed by 60% to 21.1 million from 2019 to 2020, driven by pandemic-era concerns about safety, stockpiling from buyers concerned about severed supply chains, and the lockdown-induced rediscovery of the outdoors, which spurred interest in hunting.
While background checks have dropped since then, they remain well above pre-pandemic levels, suggesting that firearms sales have reached a higher baseline following the pandemic. Last year saw the fourth-highest number of background checks, with each of the three higher ones occurring since 2020.