How many guns are there in the United States? While no one knows exactly, our most reliable estimates have put the numbers of firearms in the hands of United States civilians at 300 – 310 million, but I am convinced that number is no longer anywhere close to accurate. I suspect the true numbers are a lot higher.
In 2007, the Geneva based Small Arms Survey estimated that there were over 270 million privately owned firearms in the United States. This estimate is a very rough educated guess at best, but is often used as a starting point for discussion. A number of criteria were used to come up with this number, including gun registration numbers, expert estimates, household surveys, proxy indicators such as GDP and gun suicides, and comparison with similar countries. But even they have admitted that there are no easy rules to rely on, and that “social science, with its emphasis on verifiable indexes, naturally leads to undercounting total civilian arsenals.” Each of the five criteria listed has problems, potentially huge problems. There is no mandatory gun registration in the United States. Their expert estimates have differed by as much as a factor of ten for some countries, even modern Western countries such as Switzerland. Household surveys tend to be less reliable the more sensitive the subject, of which gun ownership certainly is one. Some people will just not readily give out that information. We’ve just witnessed what happened in one state. Even under the threat of a felony charge, it is estimated that the compliance rate for gun registration in Connecticut is less than four percent.
As part of the Brady Act, the FBI launched NICS (the National Instant Criminal Background Check System) in 1998, but are those checks a reliable indicator of firearms ownership? Over 19 million NICS checks were performed in 2012 according to the latest published records. Unofficial records put 2013 well over 20% ahead of 2012, with 2014 down but slightly ahead of 2012. Those don’t include many private sales, nor do they include firearms transactions for whom the federal government doesn’t require NICS checks. Owners of renewable carry licenses from states who meet the federal guidelines are exempt from the NICS check requirement. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) attempts to normalize the NICS figures to remove non-sales activity and other statistical noise, but even their figures do not correlate one-to-one with firearm sales. Using their normalized figures which attempt to track new gun sales which require federal checks, the rate has increased by almost 10% each year over the last seven years.
Firearms Manufacturing and Importation
Let’s look at the production figures from the gun manufacturers and importers. This should begin to weed out the new gun sales from the checks for licenses and the resale of existing guns, and compensate for multiple sales under one check and new sales that don’t require a check due to the purchaser being licensed to carry such that it preempts the federal NICS requirement.
There were over 47 million guns imported, manufactured, and sold between 2008 and 2012. Add another 15 million for 2013—a conservative guess based on what we know—and we’re well over 60 million new guns in the hands of gun owners since 2008. That means we have averaged over ten million new guns sold per year for the last six years alone. Fully one-third of new guns in recent years have been imported into the United States from other countries.
And while the trend in new gun sales is decidedly upward, it has fluctuated dramatically in the past. Around the time of the Clinton Assault Weapons Ban, there was a sharp increase in the number of domestic firearms manufactured, and total firearms sales were averaging seven to eight million per year. The end of the 1980’s also saw a large increase in the number of firearms produced domestically, with total gun sales averaging well over five million annually. See the chart below.
Not every firearm manufactured gets sold that year, but we can assume that every firearms dealer has X amount of stock at the beginning of the year, and approximately X amount of stock at the end of the year, so for our purposes all quantities manufactured each year are a pass-through for that year and get averaged out over time. These guns aren’t being stacked up in warehouses unsold. In fact, over the last couple of years the shelves of many gun stores have been empty, and the virtual shelves of online retailers, likewise. Some of our largest firearms manufacturers have been running their production lines long hours to keep up with demand.
So Where Are All Of These Guns Going?
In March 2014, the international internet-based market research firm YouGov published a survey breaking down firearms ownership in the United States according to several categories: age, sex, race, income, region, and political party affiliation.
The data suggest that Republicans own guns more than two-to-one over Democrats. 36% of men own guns, and while only 15% of women have a personal firearm, only one in four women say they feel less safe with a gun in the house. Women seem to “get it” and understand vulnerability to criminals who can overpower them. Not coincidentally, women are also the fastest growing segment of gun owners.
Somewhat surprising is that, according to this study, the South has the lowest rate of gun ownership, putting the lie to the image conjured up by some politicians and those in the media. The Midwest has the highest.
Gun ownership almost evenly straddles the income brackets, with only the lowest income seeing any significant drop. I suspect that has to do with a combination of less disposable income coupled with the fact that certain segments of our society, often low income to start with, view gun ownership in a negative light.
An October 2011 Gallup poll put the number of men who own guns at 46% and the number of women who personally own a firearm at 23%. This is a testament to how hard it is to put an accurate number on firearms ownership in the United States using answers voluntarily supplied by gun owners. Still, these various polls do reveal similar trends, even if their numbers aren’t identical.
There is a myth circulating among anti-gun people that the number of gun owners is rapidly decreasing, and that the increase in firearms is solely attributed to existing owners stocking up. This is based on a small, outdated survey of cold-calls to land lines. As one writer asked, “How would you feel if you received a call from a random stranger claiming to be from a polling agency and asking how much jewelry you have in your home? Or how much cash you carry around? Or if you leave your back door unlocked at night? This is especially frightening if you realize that land-line phone numbers all have an address associated with them. Is it really a polling agency calling or a burglar doing some recon work before stealing all your stuff? How can you tell the difference?” And how many people use land lines anymore?
According to a recently published study by Smith and Wesson, the number of new shooters is exploding. In fact, there has been an overall increase in the number of households owning guns in recent years, not less. Who is buying? 20% of shooters were new to shooting within the last five years, over half of them in 2012 alone. Two-thirds of new shooters are between the ages of 18 and 34, and women represent 37% of new shooters. According to Smith and Wesson’s survey, the top reason for gun ownership is personal safety/self-defense. That outranks hunting, recreation/sport, and target shooting combined.
Start ‘em Young
The question “What do you think is an appropriate age for someone to ﬁre a handgun, shotgun or riﬂe for the ﬁrst time?” was asked by YouGov. Interestingly enough, it almost didn’t matter what age, sex, race, income, region you lived in, or political party you identified with, the answer was almost all uniformly nine years old. Not surprisingly the only deviation from this were Democrats, the wealthiest, or people living in the Northeast. The people with the very highest incomes and Democrats pushed the age to ten, while people in the Northeast thought eleven was more appropriate. Countering that were our seniors, who thought that seven years of age was old enough. That might give us some indication of how the culture of guns and gun ownership has changed in the United States over the last fifty or sixty years.
Per-capita Gun Ownership
At the rate of 1.0 (1:1), the United States has the highest per-capita gun ownership in the world. That’s one gun for every man, women, and child in the United States. Figuring in the 24% of the US population that is under the age of 18, that leaves about 240 million adults. Using more accurate numbers, the U.S. could easily have a 1.5 rate of gun ownership among those of legal age to own a firearm. That is an incredible statistic. Compare the U.S. rate to that of Sweden, Norway, France, Canada, Germany, and Austria whose per-capita gun ownership is all roughly 0.3, less than one-third of ours. Plus, we can carry firearms with us outside the home for personal protection, something not allowed with such ease in most other Western countries. Even in the traditionally gun-friendly countries Switzerland and Finland, the rate of firearms ownership is only 0.45, less than half that of the United States.
For another comparison, the rate in Australia is 0.15 (although this includes air rifles), and England and Wales boast a gun ownership rate of only 0.06, with Scotland slightly less yet.
The Future Of Gun Ownership In The U.S.
Despite the best efforts of some for more gun control out of our nation’s capital, nothing has happened to date, and although there have been isolated instances of stricter gun regulation in a couple of states, the overwhelming majority of states continue to pass and sign into law pro-
Second Amendment legislation. Quickly looking down a list of state legislative updates for the last few years shows that states have been expanding where and how its citizens can own and carry firearms for personal protection. There are more open carry states, and as more states enact pre-emption into law and slowly eliminate gun-free zones, citizens are increasingly able to protect themselves better in their everyday lives.
Since 2007 U.S. gun manufacturers have more than doubled their output. For the years I have detailed (1986 – 2012) over 164 million new firearms have been manufactured or imported and sold in the United States. In 2014 it is just beginning to slow down, but is still above 2012 levels, which was a record high by a wide margin. By the end of 2014, I fully expect to see this number approach 200 million. The Congressional Research Service put the number of civilian firearms ownership in the United States at 310 million back in 2009: 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles, and 86 million shotguns. Although we won’t get the official domestic production figures for 2013 from the BATFE until January 2015, you can see from the manufacturing and import figures above that another 45 – 47 million guns have been added since then (2010 through 2013). Conservatively, we probably have well over 350 million guns in this country right now, and that is a low estimate for the reasons stated above. I believe—at a minimum—another 30 million new guns will be manufactured and sold before Barack Obama leaves office at the end of 2016. I predict the numbers of firearms owned in the United States will easily top 400 million well before this decade is out. And to my mind, that’s a good thing.