Culture Wars/Current Controversies

How Many Guns Are Circulating in the U.S.?

We attempt to pin down a central — yet elusive — data point in the conversation around gun violence.

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

We’ve heard for years that there are more guns in the U.S. than people, but a precise accounting remains elusive. Federal legislation that would track gun sales or establish a nationwide handgun registry has been proposed — to much resistance from the gun lobby. In lieu of exact figures, we have gun owner surveys, industry disclosures, and federal gun background check figures, none of which are comprehensive.

Pinpointing the number of guns in circulation could help us better understand the relationship between gun sales and gun violence. Researchers have consistently found that more guns means more gun deaths, but gun rights advocates continue to argue the opposite. Meanwhile, annual gun deaths have soared to unprecedented levels.

Here, we’ll try to quantify America’s civilian gun stock, explaining through the process why it’s so complicated to do so — and how the numbers we have correlate with gun deaths.


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