“How many firearms are there in the United States?” is a frequently asked question. The short answer is: “Not a whole lot.” While firearms are a very important part of American life and can be found in every region of the country, they are nowhere near as common as other types of weaponry. In fact, rifles and pistols make up the largest portion of the US’s arsenal of firearms, with handguns coming in second and rifles third.
Because there are so few rifles and pistols in the inventory, the question of how many of these weapons exist in the US is not easy to answer. Estimates put the number at around 5 million guns, although some think the number is much lower. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms does not have complete records on any firearms that were imported into the US. The ATF was designed to keep statistics on the manufacturing and importing of firearms, but was never able to gather that information due to budget cuts.
As it turns out, how many firearms are there in the US is even more difficult to answer when you consider the number of people who own them. The ATF has no complete record on gun owners. Because people own them in different ways, sometimes legally and sometimes not, there are hundreds of thousands of different combinations of people, guns, and so on that could potentially be included in the question of how many firearms are there in the US. The answer would be impossible to get if the ATF had its current database.
Even if the current database did have an inventory number for firearms in the US, there is still no way of telling how many of these guns were used in crimes. This is because all firearms sales and purchases are carefully documented – gun dealers keep detailed records of each sale, including the date and place of the transaction. But this information is not available to law enforcement agencies. It would require a tremendous amount of time and resources to compile, as well as the ability to match different sales and purchases against a template of crimes committed – something that the FBI does not have.
If there is one fact that can be used to answer the original question of how many firearms are there in the US, it would be this: gun owners are mostly responsible individuals. They don’t tend to shop around very much. When they do, they are usually shopping for guns that they know they will like, rather than shopping for guns that might be interesting to others. So the question of how many firearms are there in the US really gets answered in the same way as a question about how many cars there are on the road: the fewer vehicles there are on the road, the fewer accidents there will be. Gun owners are no different. If they knew that there was a low rate of gun owners committing homicide or crime, it might help them take care of their guns a bit better, both in terms of the number of weapons they own and tools that they possess.
The fact is that the answer to the question of how many firearms are there in the US is not very useful, because it doesn’t give us a clue as to why people choose to own firearms. It might be useful if we wanted to know how many handguns there are in the world or how many antique firearms there are. But we don’t want those kinds of statistics. We want specific answers to questions about how people use their guns, what they like to shoot, where they buy their guns, where they keep their guns when they aren’t carrying them.