Bottom line: About 4.5 million households own 165 million guns—an average of 37 firearms per household.... You may have noticed that every time a new gun law is enacted, or even seriously considered, the media reports a gun-buying bonanza. They make it seem like more and more Americans are arming themselves. But that’s not true. Instead, a small percentage of people are building larger and larger arsenals of guns. Because the gun lobby blocks all reasonable oversight, we can only estimate the numbers—but they are astonishing.

The percentage of American households owning guns has declined for decades. The General Social Survey, housed at the University of Chicago, found that about half of all households owned guns in the 1970s and that has gradually declined to 34 percent of households. Gallup and Pew poll results are similar; they say 37 percent of households now own guns. The cause for this decline is fairly simple: with urbanization, fewer and fewer young Americans are learning to hunt or target-shoot.

At the same time, the number of guns in circulation keeps rising. In our country, there are between 270 and 310 million guns in civilian hands with another 8 million manufactured or imported into the country every year.

There are about 115 million households in the U.S. If we take the more cautious figure of 37 percent gun ownership, about 42.5 million households own about 290 million guns, an average of nearly seven guns per household. That’s pretty extraordinary. But like any activity, there is always a fairly small group that accounts for a disproportionate number.

We can get an idea of the number of arsenal owners by examining data from a poll of gun owners conducted by Republican pollster Frank Luntz for Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

Question: “How many guns do you or does a member of your family own?”

About 10 percent of gun owners belong to the NRA. You can do the math yourself. I estimate the owners of one-to-nine guns possess a total of about 125 million firearms. That means the “10 or more” respondents represent about 4.5 million households that own 165 million firearms—an average of about 37 guns per household. And that’s just an average, which means some very large number (a half million?) own more than 100 guns.

A few conclusions:

FIRST: This demonstrates the tremendous need for background check laws to cover private sales. The number of potential private sellers with gigantic quantities of guns dwarfs licensed dealers. There are a few more than 50,000 retail gun stores in America. So, depending on how they’re defined, there are perhaps 50 arsenal-owners for every retail gun store.

SECOND: When you wonder why the NRA is so extreme, it’s because the arsenal owners control it. Poll after poll shows that the NRA’s political positions do not in any way reflect the opinions of gun owners or even rank-and-file NRA members. The NRA is run by and for a group of people who are extremely far outside the American mainstream.

THIRD: If the federal government won’t do it (and it won’t anytime soon), states should create arsenal licenses. There is little practical difference between licensed gun dealers and unlicensed arsenal owners. They both possess many dangerous weapons, and that calls for some minimum standards to protect the general public. There’s already a model bill—the Gun Violence Prevention Act of 1994 contained a provision (Section 204) to require an arsenal license for the possession of more than 20 firearms or more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition. (Note: When this was previously published, some commenters noted that 1,000 rounds is not much if you're shooting .22 rimfire ammunition. I tend to agree and would limit this to centerfire ammo.)

This article is cross-posted at the Public Leadership Institute's IdeaLog.

TAGS: guns, firearms, gun control, ammunition

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