There are a lot of magic numbers in journalism – numbers that get thrown around so often and are so well known that they simply must be true, even though there are never any citations of research or studies mentioned. One such magic number is “approximately 300 million,” which is apparently how many privately owned firearms are floating around the United States. This number kind of makes sense if you don’t really think about it. After all, there’s “approximately 300 million” Americans in the USA, some of whom own guns and some of whom do not. Seems like that would even out and make that a good estimate. However, I’ve been hearing about “approximately 300 million” guns since I was a kid, and I know that there have been an awful lot of firearms purchased since then. Let’s look at some hard data.
Of course, the United States does not have a central firearm registry database, so there is no hard data on exactly how many guns exist here. But, because NICS background checks are required for all non-private firearm sales (even gun show sales), we could have a pretty good idea of how many guns are being bought and sold… sort of. Not every background check equals a gun sale, because some folks can’t actually pass the background check. This is apparently only about 0.6% of would-be purchasers. On the other hand, one background check often means one person buying multiple firearms, so all we can say for sure is that a lot of background checks must mean a lot of gun sales.
And there have been an awful lot of background checks! From 1999 until 2008 they averaged around 10 million per year, and then began steadily climbing until the 23 million checks we had last year. NICS has run over 225 million background checks in total, and if merely a quarter of those purchases were two guns instead of one, then there have been “approximately 300 million” firearms bought by private citizens in the last 17 years alone!
Of course, some of these background checks are from shops selling used guns, which means those purchases don’t add to the national total firearm number. On the other hand, those 225 million checks don’t include any black powder guns, 80% lower kits, or home-built guns, all of which are legal without background checks. And of course, what about guns imported, manufactured, and sold prior to 1999? We’ve been making guns in this country for a long time. How many old guns are still operational? How many guns have been illegally imported recently?
Fortunately, one of my favorite bloggers tackled the question recently, and he brought a lot more industry knowledge to bear. Weaponsman.com is run by a humble and prolific Cold Warrior with a seemly unlimited knowledge of weapons. He is literally writing the book on Czech pistols, at least, when he’s not writing about more general weapons tech, more modern weapons tech, dredging up obscure military history, using his vast familiarity with languages to translate obscure foreign news articles, trying to make the criminal misconduct of the VA less obscure, or, just for fun, building airplanes.
After adding up all the various sources of incomplete data, and explaining why the data is incomplete, he came up with a safe and conservative estimate of at least 412-660 million guns. Since we don’t know how much data we don’t know about, the number could be, and probably is, much higher. A more accurate guess is probably impossible.
However, there are two things that I believe we can state with confidence. First, that we will see record gun sales this year regardless of who wins the election (I predict around 30 million background checks in 2016), and second, that journalists and media organizations will continue to talk about “approximately 300 million” guns in America in 2017.