The Americans Who Stockpile Guns

A new survey finds half of all the guns in the United States are owned by just 3 percent of American adults.

A man with a gun strapped to his back walks down the street near the University of Texas, as he and other pro-gun advocates prepare for a 'mock mass shooting’ in 2015. The demonstration was intended to show the need for firearms on campus.
Pro-gun advocates prepare for a 'mock mass shooting' at the University of Texas in 2015, a demonstration intended to show the need for firearms on campus.  (Jon Herskovitz / Reuters)

There are hundreds of millions of guns in the United States—enough, according to several estimates, for every American civilian adult to own more than one.

But actual gun ownership is far more lopsided than that.

A sweeping new survey by researchers at Harvard University and Northeastern University finds that roughly half of the nearly 300 million firearms in the United States are concentrated in the hands of a tiny sliver of the U.S. population: Just 3 percent of American adults own some 130 million guns, according to The Trace and Guardian US, two news organizations that first reported on the survey. (The full survey has not yet been released; Guardian US and The Trace reported plans to publish a series of stories about the findings throughout the week.)

This portrait of gun ownership represents the equivalent of about 17 guns per person among a group of “super-owners,” the 7.7 million Americans who own between eight and 140 guns each.

Super-owners are emerging at a time when the number of guns in the country is rising—the nation’s stock of firearms has swelled by some 70 million guns since 1994 while the percentage of gun owners in America has dipped. In other words, there are now more guns to go around in a shrinking population of gun owners. (About one-quarter of Americans say they own a gun, though more than one-third of Americans report living in a house where there is a firearm.)

Super owners are distinct from the larger group of gun owners in America in several ways. For one thing, they’re more likely to be men than women—even at a time when gun ownership among women is on the rise. (One area of overlap: Both women and super-owners were more likely than overall gun owners to say they owned a gun for protection.)

The new study, which is based on a 2015 survey of some 4,000 people, found super-owners were also less likely to be black or Hispanic compared with the rest of gun owners. From Guardian US:

Some super-owners are dedicated collectors with special rooms to display their assortment of historic firearms. Others are firearms instructors, gunsmiths, or competitive shooters, who need a variety of firearms in the course of work or competition. Some gun owners have a survivalist streak, and believe in storing up weapons, as well as food and water, in case of a disaster scenario. Others simply picked up a handgun here, a shotgun or hunting rifle there, and somehow ended up with dozens.

One man compared gun collecting to buying several pairs of shoes. “If you going hiking,” Philip van Cleave told Beckett, “you don’t want to use that one pair of high heels.”

Data on gun ownership in the United States remains fraught, largely because of the political and cultural intensity around the topic. There’s no official tally of how many guns—or gun owners—there are in the U.S., though many surveys and organizations have produced estimates. Tracking gun deaths is arguably even more complicated.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the government entity that studies other public health issues, virtually ignores gun violence, owing to legislation widely interpreted as preventing such research,” wrote Kate Masters for The Trace. As Beckett points out for Guardian US, much of the existing data on gun ownership is debated. Gun rights advocates often argue that Americans underreport gun ownership—challenging reports that ownership is dropping—and, already, some of them are questioning the validity of the new survey.

“Really? Three percent of American gun owners own half the guns? That seems wildly off the mark,” Mike Bazinet, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, wrote in an email to Beckett. “On the surface, this survey sounds like part of the ongoing effort to minimize gun ownership to make more gun control seem politically achievable.”