Warren Fiske
By Warren Fiske February 5, 2020

Are there more guns than citizens in the U.S.? Depends on the study

Culpeper Sheriff Scott Jenkins recently told state senators that reinstating Virginia’s one-handgun-a-month purchase limit would not reduce crime.

He was speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 13, a few minutes before the panel approved the limit. Slightly different versions of the legislation have since passed the Senate and the House, largely on party-line votes with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, backs the measure.

Jenkins spoke against the bill and made an interesting statistical claim.

"Simply put, there are more guns in this country than there are citizens," he said. "All you’re going to do is continue to drive up the cost for the criminal to purchase the illegal guns. Evil will still be committed."

Are there more guns than people in the United States?

The estimates

Hard figures on the number of guns in the U.S. are elusive.

In the past few years, headlines in the Washington Post and on Vox have declared there are more guns than people in the country. Both noted a surge of gun sales following the 2008 election of President Barack Obama.

 

But the headlines suggest the figures are certain when they’re not, given that there is no record keeping that would produce an actual count of guns in the United States. As the Pew Research Center has observed, "Gun ownership is one of the hardest things for researchers to pin down."

At the same time, there have been studies to produce estimates on the number of civilian guns in the nation.

Both the Post and Vox noted an estimate on the high end - 310 million guns - that was cited in a 2012 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. The study said the estimate was based on U.S. Department of Justice data and was the "total number of firearms available to civilians" as of 2009.

That 310 million count is higher than the U.S. population in 2009 of about 307 million and the citizenship estimate of 285 million, estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau.

But one gun-statistics expert, Philip Cook at Duke University, told the Post that the actual figure then was probably closer to 245 million guns, not 310 million, to take into account circumstances such as guns that break down or are lost or destroyed.

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Cook and two other experts -- Tom Smith at the University of Chicago and Daniel Webster at the Johns Hopkins at the Center for Gun Policy and Research -- have told PolitiFact the best, most recent estimate is in a study published in October 2017 by researchers from the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. A total of 3,949 adults, representative of the U.S. population, were surveyed online.

The lead author of the study, Deborah Azrael, says respondents were asked if they owned guns and how many, and told not to count BB guns, replicas or other firearms that were not functioning. 

The estimate: 265 million civilian guns in the United States, as of when the survey was taken, in January 2015.

The number of U.S. citizens at that time, according to the Census Bureau, was about 299 million.

Other highlights of the Harvard study:

  • Of the estimated 265 million total civilian guns, 113 million were handguns.

  • The typical gun owner (the median, in the survey) owned two guns.

  • 39% of the estimated 265 million guns were owned by 8% of the gun owners -- that 8% of all owners owned 10 or more guns.

Prior fact checks

PolitiFact has previously rated two claims that there are more guns than people in the U.S. That’s similar - but not identical - to Jenkins’ claim that there are more guns than citizens. 

One of the claims was made in 2013 by Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, the non-voting delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives representing the District of Columbia; the other in 2018 by Kevin Nicholson, an unsuccessful Republican candidate for Congress in Wisconsin. PolitiFact National, noting the lack of firm gun numbers, rated each statement Half True.

Our ruling

Jenkins says, "There are more guns in this country than there are citizens."

There is no actual count of the number of firearms in the United States. A 2009 study by the Congressional Research Service suggests Jenkins is right. A well-regarded 2015 study at Harvard suggests he’s wrong.

So we rate Jenkins’ statement Half True.

 

Our Sources

Culpeper Sheriff Scott Jenkins, Comments to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jan. 13, 2020 (28:42 mark).

U.S. Census Bureau, Nativity Status and Citizenship in the United States, 2009.

PolitiFact Wisconsin, "Which is higher: The number of people or the number of guns in America?" Feb. 20, 2018.

Email from Daniel Webster, Director, Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, Jan. 31, 2020.

Legislative Information System, SB69, HB812, 2020 session.  

Congressional Research Service, "Gun Control Legislation," Nov. 14, 2012. 

Harvard Injury Control Research Center, "The Stock and Flow of U.S. Firearms," October 2017.

The Washington Post, "There are now more guns than people in the United States," Oct. 5, 2015.

Vox, "There are now more guns than people in America," July 27, 2016.

 

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