Firearms / My Experience

How Many Americans Have “Arsenals” at Home?

Back in May, Miguel at Gun Free Zone posted a brief piece on a divorce settlement auction in Arkansas. He included a link to the listing of nearly 300 guns being auctioned by Roylston Auctions.

More recently, The Truth About Guns called attention to a story from the affluent Los Angeles suburb of Pacific Palisades where a rich eccentric named Jeffrey Alan Lash has accumulated some 1,200 guns and 6.5 tons of ammunition and explosive materials.

California-gun-collection

These stories got me thinking about the distribution of firearms in America and what constitutes an “arsenal.”

Several years ago, the Small Arms Survey estimated that there were 270 million civilian owned firearms in the United States, including handguns, rifles, and shotguns. Current estimates put this number at over 300 million.

Although this amounts to nearly one firearm for every person in the country, these weapons are not evenly distributed through the population. A majority of the adult population does not personally own any guns or even have a gun in their household. The minority of Americans who do own guns, therefore, frequently own more than one.

A 2004 national firearms survey found that 48 percent of individual gun owners own four or more firearms, and 3 percent own more than 25 firearms. As a result, the average number of firearms owned among those who own any is 6.6. As many as two-thirds of guns, therefore, are owned by just 20 percent of gun owners.

Which suggests that, depending on how you define an “arsenal,” many American gun owners have one. One of Merriam-Webster’s definition of an arsenal is “a collection of weapons.” No specification of how many weapons need to be in the collection for it to be an arsenal, and certainly no negative connotation to the term. But one of the points in the TTAG story about the 1,200 gun collection in Los Angeles was that the term arsenal is used negatively by the media.

When I present work on guns to academic audiences, I get gasps when I report the findings of the national firearms survey mentioned above. Of course, many in the audience cannot imagine why someone would need/want even a single gun, much less 6.6 or more than 25. But the case of someone close to me shows how easy it is to go from owning one or two guns to having an arsenal at home.

He begins with a semi-automatic .22 pistol, the Ruger Mark III, which is perfect for learning the fundamentals of marksmanship. He has teenagers, so he gets a single-action Ruger Bearcat .22 revolver, a very safe gun for a beginner. His wife wants a .22 caliber handgun, so they add a Smith & Wesson M&P22. Because he wants to shoot rifles in addition to handguns, he gets a very popular semi-automatic .22 rifle, the Ruger 10/22, and also a single shot .22 rifle for the kids. The idea of precision rifle shooting leads him to get a CZ American .22 bolt action rifle. So, just in .22 caliber, this person has 6 firearms – one for every person in his family.

He and his wife take a liking to clay target shooting, and so get his and hers over/under CZ shotguns, one in 12-gauge and one in 20-gauge. Add to that a 12-gauge semi-auto shotgun handed down from family and a 12-gauge tactical shotgun for home defense and the arsenal has grown to 10 firearms – above the national average of 6.6.

Shooting .22 handguns naturally leads to interest in shooting larger calibers, so add a 9mm Beretta 92FS – the civilian version of the M9 that the wife carried as a member of the United States Coast Guard. He gets a full size 9mm version of what Paul Barrett called “America’s gun,” the Glock 17, as well as an FNH FNX-9 due to its fully ambidextrous controls (he is left-handed). Running total = 13.

Becoming familiar with firearms leads to the possibility of carrying firearms concealed, so he gets a Beretta Nano 9mm and a Kahr P380 for pocket carry, and she a Smith & Wesson 640 revolver (.38/.357) and a Beretta  21A Bobcat .22. Running total = 17.

Rounding out the arsenal is a Bushmaster AR-15 platform rifle, just because, for a total of 18 firearms, nearly 3 times the national average in 2004. If you ask this person if he owns “an arsenal” of guns, I’m sure he would say no. But he does have a collection of different guns to be used by different members of his family for different purposes. And he is not a paranoid insurrectionist, tin-hat prepper, or any other dismissive terms people outside the gun culture might want to use to describe him. He is a normal, law-abiding gun owner.

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11 thoughts on “How Many Americans Have “Arsenals” at Home?

  1. Every time I see articles about ‘gun owners’ I wonder how the stereotype of young people who are in gangs. Do they count as gun owners? Are gun owners just legal gun owners? I would guess a good amount of the homicides in the inner city comes from people who possess guns but do they count as gun owners? Then also do any of the estimates of the number of guns include the number of people who have guns they bought on the street which are supposed to be teeming with guns? It seems to me some of the gangs must have arsenals also. Do the methodologies used in these surveys ever reach the gang members to ask them or are their numbers too small to matter and stolen guns are not really that big of a problem?

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    • Good questions. The survey methodology here was pretty standard — random sampling of adults over 18 years of age with a telephone in their household. So, excluded from the responses are any gang members who are under 18 years of age, as well as anyone over the age of 18 who did not or, more importantly, CHOSE not to participate. These non-responses especially have the potential to introduce bias. For example, if you were in a criminal gang and had illegal firearms, would you participate in the survey and if you did participate, tell the truth?

      So, when I read typical survey studies of gun ownership, I tend to assume they are talking about legal gun owners. If there are some people who own guns illegally who participate in these surveys, they are probably offset by the legal gun owners in the surveys who deny having guns.

      FYI, following is verbatim text from the 2004 National Firearms Survey on the methodology:

      “The random‐digit‐dial telephone sample (conducted by the survey research firm Fact Finders, St Louis, Missouri, USA) comprised 2770 randomly selected adults aged ⩾18 years living in the 50 states and including the District of Columbia. The number of interviews designated for each of the states was proportional to that state’s population relative to the total population of the US as given by the 2000 census. The methods used in composing this sample assured that each household with a telephone had an equal probability of being selected for inclusion in the sampling frame. One adult from each household was randomly selected to participate.

      Interviews were completed between 17 March and 28 June 2004. Once a telephone number had been randomly selected for inclusion in the survey sample, as many as 10 repeat phone calls were made until a final disposition was assigned. Of the 31 302 telephone numbers called, 13 117 (42%) were non‐responses, 11 065 (35%) were not eligible and eligibility was unknown for 4338 (14%). In total, 41% of the numbers were not residential, not in service or were for households in states where the interview quota had been reached. In addition, 39% of interviews could not be completed because the maximum number of calls had been made without an eligible respondent answering the phone. Only 19% (5421) of the non‐interviews were refusals. According to calculations based on formulas from the American Association for Public Opinion Research,4 our minimum response rate was 14%, assuming that all unknowns were eligible and counting partial interviews as respondents; and our maximum response rate was 18%, assuming that all unknowns were ineligible.

      Demographic characteristics including age, sex, education, marital status, race, presence of children in the home, whether the area was urban or rural, and household size of our sample were compared with those from the 2000 census.5 Although the demographic characteristics of our sample seemed similar overall to that of the census, our respondents had slightly higher educational levels (92% v total US 85% had at least a high‐school diploma) and single‐family households were fewer (19% v total US 26%). Our sample also under‐represented adult men aged 18–34 years. For that reason, post‐stratification weightings were applied to the data to reflect the age and sex distribution of the US population. Adjustments for the likelihood of selection on the basis of the number of adults in the household were also included in the weightings.

      Our study included 40 active duty military personnel, who represented 1.4% of the total study population. Eleven reported owning firearms; however, only one reported owning the firearm primarily for work. We therefore chose to keep all of the respondents in the sample.

      Respondents were asked several questions regarding firearm ownership and use. In particular, they were asked, “Do you or anyone you live with currently have any guns in your home or motor vehicles? Not including toys, models, air guns or starter pistols.” If the response was affirmative, the respondent was then asked, “In total, how many guns do you and anyone you live with currently have in your home or motor vehicle?” All respondents who replied that there were guns in their household were asked how many of each type of firearm was in their home (ie, revolvers, shotguns) and if they were in working order. To determine the proportion of adults who personally owned firearms, we asked those respondents who had replied that there were guns in their home, “Do any guns in your home belong to you personally?””

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  2. The problem is that the surveys always confuse gun “owner” and gun-owning household. They should be seen as one and the same with the latter used to figure out per-capita ownership. The most accurate numbers are that 1/3 of households have guns, which means around 35 million households. This works out to 8-9 guns per household and I believe this to be a realistic figure; 90% of the 8,000 people who bought guns in my retail shop between 2000 and 2014 owned multiple guns, and most owned more than 10. Guns are a hobby. Why shouldn’t they be owned in multiple numbers. Ever go into the house of someone who likes toy trains? Do they only have one train? Right now I personally own 35 guns or so – and I’m on the light side because I’m getting older.

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    • Thanks for these thoughts, MTTG. The surveys I read tend to ask whether there are guns in the household and then whether the respondent personally owns a gun. When I do analyses, I usually use personal gun ownership as the dependent variable given some of the findings in the past about women underreporting household gun ownership.

      Of course, I see the point that if a gun is in a household, it is likely that any survey respondent 18 years of age or older has access to that gun.

      Note that the 2004 National Firearms Survey does make this distinction between household and personal ownership. From the methodology:

      “Respondents were asked several questions regarding firearm ownership and use. In particular, they were asked, “Do you or anyone you live with currently have any guns in your home or motor vehicles? Not including toys, models, air guns or starter pistols.” If the response was affirmative, the respondent was then asked, “In total, how many guns do you and anyone you live with currently have in your home or motor vehicle?” All respondents who replied that there were guns in their household were asked how many of each type of firearm was in their home (ie, revolvers, shotguns) and if they were in working order. To determine the proportion of adults who personally owned firearms, we asked those respondents who had replied that there were guns in their home, “Do any guns in your home belong to you personally?””

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  3. Except I am a multiple-gun owner and I would never answer ‘random-contact’ questions about my gun ownership! (Are you kidding?!) So, I don’t see how it is possible to get any kind of semi-accurate data… How many gun owners would answer these questions of called out of the blue?!

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  4. I agree with Elenor. Most gun owners today are a bit paranoid about answering gun ownership questions when they can be identified, because of the threat of ultimate confiscation or taxes by our anti-gun government. Also, a 2004 survey will be way off today because Obama has been such a good gun salesman in the last few years!

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  5. Even long before the current President, other events drove up gun sales. There was a big case of a “railroad killer” (who was caught) in Texas a couple decades back. A friend who ran a pawn shop said they sold every cheap and inexpensive gun they could lay hands on to all sorts of people who didn’t already have a gun.

    Cartridge firing guns were manufactured in the US for years long before any sales paperwork or records were required (Civil War). I would be curious to see manufacturing/import records and export records compared to get an idea of what a possible maximum number of guns might be. I am not sure if those numbers are even available. There are lots of guns out there that are handed down or traded/sold person to person between collectors. I wonder if the estimated total number of guns might be understated by quite a bit.

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  6. Pingback: America’s Super Gun Owners Are . . . What? | Gun Culture 2.0

  7. Pingback: Recreational Gun Culture as Serious Leisure, Part 3 – Collecting | Gun Culture 2.0

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