Here is an interesting graph on state-level gun purchases, which shows NICS checks per 1,000 residents in 2010 by state using FBI NICS and US Census data.
First, note the unusually high number of NICS checks in Kentucky; it appears that this may be an artifact of a law allowing the state to run monthly NICS checks on concealed carry license holders.
Second, I also find it interesting that some states that are presumed to have very different gun cultures – e.g., California and Arizona – are not as different in terms of NICS checks as their distinct gun laws would suggest. And several “hotbeds” of gun culture – Texas, Georgia, Virginia, Nevada – are in the bottom 50% in terms of NICS checks per 1,000 state residents.
What does this mean? On the one hand, it could mean that some states are more similar in terms of gun purchasing than often recognized (although the difference the bottom and top ends of this spectrum, even discounting Kentucky, is very wide). On the other hand, and more likely, I think it means that even though it is probably one of the best measurement tools available, the NICS check is just not a valid indicator of differences in gun ownership and let alone gun cultures across states. States probably differ in terms of firearm acquisition patterns (particularly the portion of sales that actually go through NICS checks), and as the Kentucky example suggests, state- and local-level laws may misleadingly depress or inflate the NICS data. So, the graph provides a rough overview, but very rough.
Setting politics aside, the lack of standardized background checks (which would, e.g., mean adjusting Kentucky’s law) or some other kind of mechanism for tracking where and which kinds of Americans own guns makes it extremely difficult to use statistical models to meaningfully unpack state-level patterns in firearms ownership, which is further aggravated by differences in state- and local-level laws. While gun advocates argue that this level of privacy is the precisely the point of avoiding universal background checks, the murkiness of firearms data opens the pandora box for drawing dubious conclusions regarding gun ownership in America by both sides of the gun debate. Scholars seem to aggravate, rather than address, this issue with poorly designed survey instruments that do not, for example, distinguish between handguns, rifles and shotguns or between firearms owned for hunting versus sport shooting versus personal protection purposes. This lack of nuance likely obscures racial, gendered, urban/rural and class dynamics of gun ownership and carry, which makes it difficult to answer relatively basic questions, like whether gun ownership is up or down. Consider the recent NYTimes story on the General Social Survey’s documented decreases in firearms ownership; my conjecture is that this decline reflects a polarization of pro/anti-gun sentiment in the US, with more passive gun owners getting rid of their firearms, as well as a decline in hunting, but probably alongside an increase in protective, gun ownership. I am not convinced these declines necessarily indicate a weakening gun culture in the US – not when Gallup repeatedly shows that opposition to a handgun ban continues to increase and that the majority of Americans have a favorable opinion of the NRA. More likely is that this decline represents a transformation in American gun culture – meaning that scholars should be working harder to understand the significance of guns in American life rather than using these results to dismiss gun culture as on the wane. Had this survey asked respondents about which kinds of guns they own and how they acquired the guns that they do own (e.g., inheriting a gun is very different than purchases one from a gun store or gun show), we would have a much better handle on what the measured decline actually means.
My own research uses qualitative methods in order to develop a more fine-grained understanding of Americans who conceal carry firearms. But needless to say, for those of us interested in understanding why Americans own guns, the lack of meaningful (read: reliable and valid) quantitative data broken down by state, by firearm type, and by ownership purpose remains frustrating.