Firearms

How Many Guns Are There in America Today?

As I noted in my last post, I am focusing my Sociology of Guns seminar around James Wright’s 1995 essay, “Ten Essential Observations on Gun in America.” Last week we addressed the first three of Wright’s observations are:

  1. Half the households in the country own at least one gun.
  2. There are 200 million guns already in circulation in the United States, give or take a few tens of millions.
  3. Most of those 200 million guns are owned for socially innocuous sport and recreational purposes.

Observations 2 and 3 are easier to address. So, in this and two following posts I will address observation 2, then 3, and then observation 1 last.

The students were assigned three contemporary readings on Wright’s first three observations:

  • “The Stock and Flow of US Firearms: Results from the 2015 National Firearms Survey,” a yet-to-be-published manuscript by Azrael, Hepburn, Hemenway, and Miller (connect to it here).
  • “Caught in a Crossfire: Legal and Illegal Gun Ownership in America,” by Richard L. Legault an Alan J. Lizotte (published in a 2009 Handbook on Crime and Deviance).
  • Selection from Shooters: Myths and Realities of America’s Gun Cultures by Abigail A. Kohn (published in 2005).

To take the second observation first, the first two readings both support Wright’s earlier observation. Although Wright does not cite his source, the National Study of Private Firearms Ownership in the United States sponsored by The Police Foundation and National Institute of Justice estimated 192 million privately owned firearms in 1994. This amounts to roughly 200 million guns, “give or take a few tens of millions,” as Wright says.

Legault and Lizotte estimated the U.S. civilian gun stock to be just over 216 million as of 2006. And the 2015 National Firearms Survey (NFS) pegs the current stock of firearms at somewhere between 245 million and 285 million.

I know some will argue that the NFS estimate is low, and that there are over 300 million firearms in the United States today. But for me, Wright’s “give or take a few tens of millions” is right on. The heart of Wright’s observation is that there are ALOT of guns in America. Even though no one knows exactly how many, these estimates all support the idea that there are ALOT. Far more than any other country, both in absolute numbers and per capita. Whether it is 285 million or 315 million is inconsequential.

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9 thoughts on “How Many Guns Are There in America Today?

  1. Has the Azrael et al study come out? I have your pre-print and last I heard it was in review. Interestingly, it states that less than a quarter of Americans own guns and there are more guns with a smaller percentage of Americans (I’m doing my part, having just bought another one), somewhat different than Wright’s statement. That could in part be explained by hunting being in decline while personal defense on the upswing.

    So as you infer in your blog title, gun culture has changed to 2.0.

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    • To my knowledge the National Firearms Study paper hasn’t been published yet. I expect it is going to be published in the Russell Sage Foundation Journal here: http://www.rsfjournal.org/

      The question of how many Americans own guns is coming up on my writing schedule, hopefully up before class Wednesday. It’s the hardest of the first 3 points Wright considers, so takes longer to think through. Stay tuned!

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    • Thanks very much for this reference, John. Dramatic difference indeed.

      The Weaponsman blog says the data referenced are publicly available but I didn’t see a link (was reading on my phone granted). Was there a link to the public data?

      I also wish I had time to compare these numbers to the other ATF reports on firearms numbers. Legault and Lizotte use the ATF data on firearms produced and imported annually for civilian use and then subtract exports so need to grasp why those ATF numbers depart so dramatically from these other numbers.

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