America’s Super Gun Owners Are . . . What?

Lois Beckett covers guns in the United States for The Guardian, and recently cross-posted her work on The Trace, because some researchers at Harvard and Northeastern Universities gave these two gun-control-oriented news organizations early access to their findings from a study of gun ownership in the United States.

Beckett highlighted one particular finding from the survey: That 3% of Americans own half of the civilian gun stock. (I will ignore for now questions both about the survey’s estimate of gun ownership and of the number of guns in circulation, both of which many suspect are low.)

Meet America’s Gun Super-Owners — With An Average of 17 Firearms Each

My interest in this story is in its purpose. I am not sure whether this is meant to stoke fear — OMG, people are hoarding guns!!!! — or supposed to be a cause for celebration — HOORAY, gun ownership is a marginal and dying subculture!!!! — among gun control advocates like the authors of the study.

Obviously, I don’t find it either scary or exciting. It’s seems to me just a statement of fact that is probably pretty close to true (plus or minus whatever percentage of gun owners and whatever number of guns actually exist). A few gun owners own alot of guns. I’ve written before about how easy it is for a normal gun owning individual or household to accumulate an “arsenal” based on different types of guns and different types of shooting.

In an interview on NPR, Beckett herself acknowledged that we should not be fearful of these Gun Super-Owners. Robert Siegel asked her, “Is there any evidence that being a super-owner is linked to increased gun violence, whether of suicide or homicide?” She answered, “No, there’s no evidence of that,” and even allowed for the possibility that super-owners “might be a lot safer.”


Given all this, I am not sure what part of the finding Dana Loesch took such great exception to in this tweet:


3% of Americans would be about 10% of gun owning individuals. If they own half, then probably 20% of gun owning individuals own 80% of all guns, which follows the 80/20 rule that 80% of something is dominated by the 20% most interested. Plus or minus whatever percentage, I don’t know what all the fuss is about from either the anti- or pro-gun sides. (And I have gotten quite exercised by other stories about this study.)




  1. “I will ignore for now questions both about the survey’s estimate of gun ownership and of the number of guns in circulation, both of which many suspect are low.”

    It’s very important to address these questions.

    There are at least six states that require a government-issued permission slip to lawfully own firearms, including Illinois. The number of active Illinois FOID cards continues to grow, not shrink.

    Please keep in mind that “declines” in surveys always happen to take place right as gun control restrictions are being imposed at the federal level.

    Since the early 1990s, when Clinton pushed the Brady Bill, federal “assault weapons” ban and zoning regulations that drove many small gun dealers out of business (back then they were called “kitchen-table dealers”), lots of gun owners have not identified themselves as such during the surveys. For example, during the first three years of Clinton’s presidency, Gallup surveys found that the share of people acknowledging that they had guns in their homes dropped from 51% to 38%. Furthermore, CBS News poll, conducted right after the terrorist attack on a night club in Orlando, with president Obama and others calling for gun control, found that the percentage of households with at least one gun owner had declined 10% since 2012. It is absurd and it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to know the reliability of these results should be questioned, if not discarded entirely.

    Unfortunately, the mainstream media fails to consider any explanation for survey trends other than the one that is sync with anti-gun activist groups’ propaganda. And they also fails to comprehend the conflict between what they want to believe about SOME survey trends and MASSIVE EMPIRICAL EVIDENCES that show a marked increase in public support for gun ownership. The point is: surveys are not the only way to determine gun ownership rates:

    – During President Obama’s administration, the number of concealed handgun permits has soared to over 14.5 million – a 215% increase since 2007 ( in 12 states a permit is no longer required to carry in all or virtually all of the state. Thus the growth in permits does not provide a full picture of the overall increase in concealed carry);

    – TSA seizes record number of firearms in carry-on bags at airport checkpoints;

    – Shooting ranges are popping up across America to meet demand for shooting sports; ( /

    – The number of licenses to make firearms grew nationally by nearly 250 percent from 3,040 licenses in 2009 to 10,503 last year (

    – Demand for popular courses like NRA Basic Pistol and the female-focused Women On Target Instructional Shooting Clinics have led to the NRA rapidly approaching 100,000 trained Certified Firearms Instructors and Range Safety Officers. Responsible for teaching and supervising safe shooting activities, their number has surged from 58,526 to 97,755 in just five years (2008-2013);

    Last but not least: the peer reviewed studies constantly show that indirect or veiled questions give a more accurate result. We already have a veiled or indirect question: Pew, Gallup and Rasmussen Reports find +60% of Americans say having a gun in the home makes the household safer from crimes and that seems to be the real gun ownership rate in 21st century America.


    • Really helpful thoughts and leads, thanks. Some of these definitely suggest growth (esp. FOID cards), while others can still be explained in terms of concentration of guns among a small percentage (e.g., licenses to make firearms), and some can be explained by the liberalization of gun laws (TSA seizures). Collectively, though, they definitely suggest that something more is going on than surveys suggest.

      For a couple of years now I have been working on a post about measuring gun ownership in the U.S. Given the complexity, I don’t know that I will ever finish it, but if I do, these ideas will definitely be in there.


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