April 04, 2018

What if the Census asked about firearms ownership?

A thought experiment.

by Chris Thomas

Photo by Bernardo Ramonfaur

So imagine that you’re one of the families chosen to receive the US Census’ “Long Form” and, midway through the survey you come across a series of questions:

20: Are firearms present in your household?
20a: How many?
20b: Number of long guns?
20c: Number of hand guns?
20d: Number of semi-automatic firearms?
20e: Number of automatic firearms?
20f: Approximately how many rounds of ammunition are present in your home?
20g: Are all firearms in your household secured according to the best practices laid out by Project Child Safe?

If you’re a firearms owner, what would you think? Would you feel comfortable answering these questions? Would the U.S. Government’s possession of even a fairly undetailed record of your family’s firearms ownership give you pause?

Would your concern rise to such a level that you might refuse to fill out the long form Census questionnaire or even lie on the form to protect your privacy?

This is, as it happens, not such a crazy idea. First and foremost, the #NeverAgain movement born of the Parkland shooting has called for the modernization of the ATF’s firearms registry, effectively advocating for the collection and tabulation of this kind of data via electronic sales records, so the idea that the government might have legitimate need for this information isn’t exactly far-fetched. #NeverAgain hasn’t pushed for any changes to the US Census but the hypothetical is illustrative given that the Trump administration is says it will add a question on citizenship to the 2020 Census.

Now, instead of imagining yourself as a firearms owner, imagine yourself as a Dreamer or someone else in the country on questionable grounds. Are you going to answer the Census questions honestly? Are you going to answer at all?

While it might be easy to reject the firearms question and embrace the citizenship one — firearms ownership is, after all, protected by the 2nd Amendment and it’s against the law to be in the country illegally — the Census has never been about counting just citizens or just people with the right to vote. Heck, it isn’t even just about counting people for the purposes of Congressional representation. Census data touches everything from transportation infrastructure projects to natural disaster planning. It influences homeland security funding and is used to plan government services by everything from the Agriculture Department to Veterans’ Affairs.

Unless we’re going to start blocking undocumented immigrants on every highway entrance ramp and demand proof of citizenship before FEMA will render aid in a natural disaster, the under-reporting and bad data caused by the Census’ citizenship question is going to hurt law-abiding, tax-paying, American citizens every bit as much as it hurts undocumented immigrants.

Just like it would if we asked about firearms ownership.

The difference is, asking about firearms ownership might actually save some lives; the citizenship question is just spiteful.

Tell Congress What You Think

No matter what the Trump administration thinks about the matter, Congress has the responsibility to oversee the Census. You can tell Congress what you think about Census questions, Census funding, or any other issue by texting RESIST to 50409. Or, if SMS isn’t your style, you can contact your government by talking to Resistbot on Facebook Messenger, Telegram, or Twitter.

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