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How Many Guns Are There and Who Owns Them? - Americans Who Own Guns

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Guns in the Home

According to a 1994 survey, the National Survey on Private Ownership and Use of Firearms, 35% of American households owned guns, which means that an estimated forty-four million Americans owned nearly two hundred million guns, enough to provide every adult in the United States with one gun at that time. However, only 25% of adults actually owned a gun, because a majority of gun owners possessed two or more guns. In fact, the majority of American males do not own guns, and only about one woman out of ten is a gun owner.

People who had several guns tended to have varied collections, including long guns (such as rifles and shotguns) and handguns (pistols and revolvers). Handguns made up only 33% (sixty-five million) of the guns owned, but as shown in Figure 2.1, handguns are used in the majority of crimes involving guns. The data come from Crime Gun Trace Reports (2002), the third such report published by the ATF. Handguns were used in more than 77% of crimes involving guns in 2000. The ATF found that ages eighteen to twenty-four were peak years for

FIGURE 2.1

being a crime-gun possessor. The ATF report showed that criminals get around tough gun laws by having others purchase weapons legally, but then resell them illegally to buyers who could not have passed the FBI's background check of gun purchasers.

A more recent estimate of the number of households with guns is presented in the 2001 National Gun Policy Survey of the National Opinion Research Center: Research Findings (Chicago: National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago, December 2001). Like the 1994 survey, the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) survey showed that in 2001, 35% of American households had at least one gun. More than twice as many households (13.6%) owned long guns as handguns (6%), and 16% owned both types.

Figure 2.2 shows the results of Gallup surveys on the number of Americans who kept guns in the home from March 12–14, 1993, through October 6–8, 2003. The data suggest that after an all-time high in 1983 of 51% of households that admitted having a gun, the numbers decreased significantly, only to rise again after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The most recent information in the study shows that 43% of Americans kept a gun in the house.

Gun Ownership Trends over Twenty-Eight Years

Table 2.6 and Table 2.7 present detailed NORC data showing the trends in private gun ownership over twentyeight years, from 1973 to 2001. The NORC survey showed that 40.7% of households had guns in 1994, compared with about 35% reported in the National Survey on Private Ownership and Use of Firearms.

TABLE 2.6

Trends in gun ownership, 1973–2001
Percent of adults in households with guns Percent of households with guns Percent of adults personally owning gun
SOURCE: Adapted from Tom W. Smith, "Table 6. The Ownership of Guns," 2001 National Gun Policy Survey of the National Opinion Research Center: Research Findings, National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago, December 2001, http://www.norc.uchicago.edu/online/guns01.pdf (accessed October 8, 2004)
1973 49.1 47.3
1974 47.9 46.2
1976 49.7 46.7
1977 54.0 50.7
1980 50.8 47.7 29.0
1982 48.9 45.5 29.1
1984 48.5 45.2 25.5
1985 48.1 44.3 30.7
1987 48.6 46.1 28.2
1988 43.4 40.1 25.2
1989 48.9 46.1 27.4
1990 45.8 42.7 28.7
1991 43.7 39.9 27.6
1993 45.5 42.1 29.4
1994 43.9 40.7 28.5
1996 43.4 40.2 27.2
1997 38.6 37.4 28.7
1998 36.8 34.9 22.5
1999 39.9 35.8 27.2
2000 34.3 32.5 22.3
2001 34.9 33.1 24.2

Overall, the NORC data show that the percentage of households with guns dropped slowly after 1977, with a few slight upturns. In the early 1970s, about half of adults in households kept a gun. This proportion fell to just below 25% in 2001, partly because of a decrease in household size. The proportion of households with guns has steadily dropped from a high of 50.7% in 1977 to 33.1% in 2001.

Table 2.7 shows a shift in the types of guns that Americans own. Long guns have fallen out of favor, probably because of a decline in hunting as a recreational pursuit. The proportion of adults in households with long guns dropped from a high of nearly 46% in 1977 to 29% in 2001. On the other hand, the proportion of adults living in a household with a handgun increased, from about 20% in 1973 to between 22% and 26% in the 1990s.

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