How Many Guns are in the United States?

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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!

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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.

  1. Dear Issac: Just a comment from a little old lady…. I think you better change that number to billions of firearms…remember there was no requirement for record keeping prior to 1968 ..there were no requirements for records of sales prior to that time…Individuals could purchase firearms from Sears Stores through the mail and any other mail order source…It wasn’t until the series of assasinations that the laws changed…The firearms used to kill Kennedy in 1963 were purchased through the mail…..so you really only have a small accountability from 1968 to today on how many have been sold legally by the tally of the Form 4473 each purchaser must complete when he buys a firearm from a legally lic. dealer, pawn shop or sports co., etc….Those are legal purchases…..your are right, there is no registry..the only record the govt has is the yellow 4473 form completed by business people trying to obey the law…Those records (4473’s and logs of purchases from manufacturers) must be turned into the ATF NAtional Tracing Center in WVA once the company is no longer in business…Many times those records don’t make it into govt hands…it is through the responsibility of legally lic dealers that govt has the info is has. Background checks can only go so far as there is no system that tracks personal medical and psychological data from individual medical records…its against the law for anyone to gather that type of data for a tracking system…unfortunately we have alot of crazy people who need to be tracked. I don’t know how you feel but we should never have our right to own firearms revoked…that would not be pretty. We need to keep them out of the hands of crazy people, but I’m not sure how we will get that cow back to the barn… Hope all is well with you..Nancy

    - Nancy Pillar

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