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The Fascinating Arithmetic of Guns in the U.S.

By March 24, 2018February 21st, 20202 Comments

We are all affected by the slaughter of the students at Parkland high school a few weeks ago, and uplifted (I hope) by the massive turnout of demonstrating students and adults all over our country and around the world to protest gun violence. In this fraught situation, many of you may have noticed the special opinion section in the Boston Globe yesterday that offered some key statistics and seven proposed practical steps the country could take, based on Massachusetts experience, to limit the slaughter going forward.

Numbers Count

I was particularly struck by 2 numbers in the Globe, which they attributed to the National Firearm Survey from 2015:

  • 78% of American adults do NOT own a gun
  • 3% of Americans own HALF of all guns nationwide

For me, these numbers begged being made more concrete and communicative. So let’s add in the population of the country and the total number of guns in the country:

  • 325,000,000 is fairly close to the current population of the U.S. (multiple public sources)
  • 300,000,000 would be a low estimate of the total number of firearms owned by the public in the U.S. (Congressional Research Service cited by NPR and multiple other sources). Many current estimates are at least 5% higher. Regardless, that’s a lot of guns.

The Magic of Division and Subtraction

Through the wonders of arithmetic, we can readily derive the following:

  • 253,500,000 Americans do NOT own a gun
  • Therefore 71,500,000 (22% of Americans) own all 300,000,000 guns, but not equally

Of those 22%, a small minority (3%) own fully half the guns, meaning the remaining 19% own the other half:

  • So 61,750,000 Americans (19/22 orĀ  86% of the gun-owning population) own 150,000,000 guns, or an average of 2.43 guns per gunowner
  • And only 9,750,000 Americans (3/22 or 14% of the gun-owning population) own the other 150,000,000 or a whopping average of 15.4 guns per gun-owner!

What a Concentration of Firepower

Over 15 guns per person for under 10 million Americans account for half of all guns in the country. Did you have any idea of that concentration of hardware? I certainly didn’t. Nor do I recall any real public discussion of the skewed ownership of guns. When a reliable federal survey indicates over three-quarters of Americans do NOT own a gun, and 3% of Americans own half the guns? These numbers are worth pondering. There are policy prescriptions in there somewhere that a rational body politic would figure out.



  • Laurie Johnson says:

    Thanks for posting this, Dr. Kanner! It’s definitely mind-boggling to take a closer look at the numbers. Here’s a link to a related article that sheds additional light on the subject, focused on what’s motivating these heavily armed gun owners to stockpile so many guns:

  • Andrew Ostrom says:

    OK, Steve, I first have to quote the phrase that Mark Twain popularized, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Just a few thoughts on your “facts.”

    First, even if I accept you premise (I don’t) the US Census says that 24% of the population is under 18 years old, so they don’t count in your calculation.

    Next, I have no idea who the “National Firearm Survey” is, but I am sure it is an anti-gun group (as is the Boston Globe). Here’s a quote from CNN, which is as left-wing and anti-gun as you can get:

    1. We don’t know how many people own guns
    There is no countrywide database where people register whether they own guns (the law doesn’t allow it). We have to rely on surveys instead. High quality telephone polls from Gallup and the Pew Research Center in 2017 found that 42% of people in the US live in households with guns.

    According to the General Social Survey, which has a much higher response rate than telephone polls and interviews people in person, a relatively lower 32% of Americans said in 2016 that they lived in household with guns. The gap between telephone and GSS surveys has existed in some form for 20 years, so it isn’t just a one-off difference.

    It’s not clear which datasets are more correct. The GSS, with its high response rate, is generally thought of as the gold standard survey in understanding social trends in America. It is conceivable, though, that people may not want to admit to owning guns to people who are standing in front of them.

    I’m sure your “number of guns” is no more accurate, for sure it doesn’t count the millions of guns owned by criminals or gang members.

    I will agree that many (or even most) gun owners own more than one gun. So what? If you’re a hunter & target shooter you may well own a rifle for deer hunting, a rifle for small game, a shotgun for duck hunting, a shotgun for shooting trap, a shotgun for shooting skeet, and one of more handguns for competition and/or defense. None of these is a replacement for another, just as any craftsman has tools for different purposes, so do shooting sports participants.

    These reputable numbers totally contradict the Globe assertions and numbers. You are skewed by your Massachusetts / New England bias – ALL of my friends in West Virginia own at least one gun, and I’m sure a broad majority of households do. I’m sure that the Massachusetts population will scoff at West Virginia as, “backwater,” but the people I know all have advanced degrees from places like Harvard, Oxford, and Emory, and they all hunt and/or shoot at the range in competitions or for relaxation.

    I could go on, but won’t. What the left is doing is using a tragedy to push a political agenda; I haven’t seen an outcry about the incompetency demonstrated by FBI and Florida officials who had many opportunities to prevent this; or marches demanding better mental health screening and in-patient services.

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