10 Big Questions in the U.S. Gun Control Debate


How Many Guns Are in the U.S.?

gun control debate
People look at thousands of handguns as hundreds of dealers sell, show and buy guns at The Nation's Gun Show at the Dulles Expo Center in Metropolitan Washington D.C. in October 2015. Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images

The U.S. has a lot of guns — so many, in fact, that there's nearly one firearm for every person who lives in the country. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, in 2017 there were an estimated 393 million guns in the U.S., including 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles and 86 million shotguns [source: Karp]. The 2017 U.S. population is more than 327 million.

This already huge privately held arsenal is growing at a very fast rate. In 2015, more than 9.3 million firearms were manufactured globally, and about half of those are bought by people who live in the U.S. [source: ATF].

That may lead you to the mistaken impression that everyone is packing heat. In truth, however, the majority of Americans still are unarmed. In an October 2018 Gallup poll, for example, 43 percent of Americans said they had a gun in their homes [source: Gallup]. In fact, the number of Americans who own guns seems to be on the decline; Gallup, for example, found that the percentage who had guns in 2012 was 8 percent lower than in the mid-1990s. Some believe that gun ownership may be decreasing because gun owners tend to be middle-aged white males, a demographic that represents a smaller segment of the population in 2013 [sources: Statistic Brain, Brennan].

But gun purchases — and gun manufacturing — are both at all-time highs. So if more guns are being sold, more people must be owning guns, right? Wrong. It appears most of the new gun purchases appear to be by existing gun owners. In fact, a relatively small number of heavily armed people own most of the country's guns. A groundbreaking study published in 2017 by The Russell Sage Foundation half of America's gun stock (approximately 130 million guns) is owned by approximately 14 percent of gun owners [source: Azrael, et al].