This article is part of the Guns & America explainer series. You can read other entries here.
Recent surveys find that about 40% of adult Americans own a gun or live with someone who does. A majority of those gun owners cite protection as their primary reason for owning a gun, and most believe the gun or guns they own make their homes safer. But research has consistently shown that households with guns are actually less safe — with markedly higher risks for accidental deaths, suicides and domestic homicides.
How Many Americans Own A Gun?
The answer to this question is not straightforward. The exact number of U.S. gun owners is unclear due to the fact that there is no federal registration requirement or similar regulation that would enable an official count. In fact, federal law prohibits a central registry of firearms owned by private citizens.
About 40% of Americans say they or someone in their household owns a gun, and 22% of individuals (about 72 million people) report owning a gun, according to surveys from Pew and Harvard and Northeastern. This figure has declined over time, down from 51% of gun-owning households in 1978. Gun purchases, however, have hit historic highs in recent years and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Americans also own a disproportionate share of the world’s firearms: The U.S. has just 4% of the world’s population but owns about 40% of civilian-owned guns globally, according to a 2018 report from the Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey. The SAS estimates that American civilians own 393 million guns, ranking the U.S. number one in firearms per capita. And there are costs associated with these high levels of gun ownership: Researchers at Harvard have found that across developed nations, this widespread ownership of firearms is associated with higher rates of gun homicides.
According to a widely cited 2016 study by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the U.S. is second only to Brazil in number of total gun deaths. And the U.S. ranks 20th in per capita gun deaths, with a rate of 10.6/100K people. When the U.S. is compared with other wealthy nations, it becomes an outlier: The gun death rate is nine times as high as Canada’s (0.47 deaths/100K people), and 29 times as high as in Denmark (0.15 deaths/100K), for example.
Read more: An Unexpected Proxy: Researchers Turn To Suicide Stats To Estimate Gun Ownership
Why Do People Say They Own Guns?
Over the past 20 years, there has been a dramatic shift in gun ownership preferences and behaviors away from rifles owned for hunting or sport-shooting and toward handguns purchased for self-defense.
According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 67% of gun owners say protection is the reason they own a gun. By comparison, roughly 4 out of 10 (38%) cite hunting as a major reason, and just 3 out of 10 cite sport shooting. This is a marked change from the 1990s, when 57% of gun owners said they owned a gun for hunting or target/sport shooting.
Researchers report that gun owners each own, on average, more guns today (five) than they did two decades ago (four). And a 2017 study from Harvard and Northeastern, an analysis of the 2015 National Firearms Survey, found that the majority of new guns acquired over the past 20 years are handguns, which now account for 42% of total civilian-owned firearms in the U.S., compared to one-third two decades ago.
Surveys continue to find that a majority of gun owners believe they are safer with a gun in their homes. And many gun rights activists, supported by a long-standing narrative from the NRA, continue to argue that “a good guy with a gun” can save people from gun violence. But numerous studies have found that self-defensive gun use to prevent or combat violence is rare: A 2015 Harvard study, for example, found that people defended themselves with a gun in less than 1% of 14,000 crimes from 2007-11.
By contrast, research has shown that it’s far more likely a gun in the home will be used for suicide or homicide than for self-defense. One of the first was a landmark study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1993, which found that keeping a gun in the home was “strongly and independently associated” with an increased risk of homicide. The authors also found that people who keep guns in the home are three times more likely to be a homicide victim as people who do not.
More recently, a 2014 review of the research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine also found that access to firearms was associated with a doubled risk for homicide and a tripled risk for suicide.
And a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in July 2019 found that for each 10% increase in household gun ownership rates, there was a significant (13%) increased incidence of domestic firearm homicide.
Some studies have also found that states with higher levels of gun ownership have higher levels of gun homicides. For example, a 2013 study led by Boston University School of Public Health found a 1% increase in gun ownership correlated with a roughly 0.9% rise in the firearm homicide rate at the state level.
The Future Of Gun Ownership And Violence
Gun sales have surged during the COVID-19 pandemic and ahead of the 2020 presidential election. According to the widely cited Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting consulting firm, total annual firearm sales through August 2020 exceeded sales for the entirety of 2019.
Research from the University of California, Davis, has linked the recent surge in firearm sales to an 8% increase in violence across the U.S. And it seems possible that the surge in gun sales could also lead to an increase in accidental gun deaths, which is what happened in 2013 following a surge in gun sales after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.
Updated Sept. 21: A previous version of this story misstated the estimated number of firearms sold in 2020. Total annual firearm sales through August 2020 exceeded sales for the entirety of 2019, according to estimates from Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting.
Lisa Dunn is the research editor for Guns & America.