Survey: Half the Guns in America Are Owned by 3% of the Population

A new academic study found that ownership of half of the estimated 265 million firearms in America is concentrated in the hands of three percent of the population.

  • Published 20 September 2016

A yet-to-be published survey of 4,000 Americans conducted by public health researchers at Harvard and Northeastern universities found that half the nation’s guns are owned by just three percent of the population, The Guardian has reported. Each of these 7.7 million “hardcore super-owners” have accumulated between eight and 140 firearms apiece, the researchers say, while the majority of the nation’s 55 million gun owners possess an average of three.

The poll further indicates that the total number of firearms in circulation is 265 million — fewer than the 300 million figure usually cited in gun control debates. Gun surveys don’t typically ask how many firearms there are in each household, Duke University gun researcher Phil Cook told The Guardian, making it more difficult to arrive at an accurate total. Cook praised the Harvard/Northeastern research as “a very high-quality survey.” Gun ownership polls are often criticized on the basis that many owners would be reluctant to share such information with a random caller, but in this case the participants were interviewed online. 

Even at 265 million, the revised estimated firearm count is still 70 million higher than that found in a 1994 survey, amounting to more than one gun for every American adult. Even so, this represents a slight drop in the percentage of Americans who own guns (from 25 percent to 22 percent of the population), an even greater decrease in the number of men who own guns (from 42 percent to 32 percent), and a slight increase in the number of women who do (from 9 percent to 12 percent). Women are also more likely than men to cite self-defense as their reason for owning a gun, and more likely to own a handgun only. Self-defense is “an increasingly important factor in gun ownership,” the researchers say.

“The desire to own a gun for protection – there’s a disconnect between that and the decreasing rates of lethal violence in this country. It isn’t a response to actuarial reality,” said Matthew Miller, a Northeastern University and Harvard School of Public Health professor and one of the authors of the study.

The data suggests that American gun ownership is driven by an “increasing fearfulness”, said Dr Deborah Azrael, a Harvard School of Public Health firearms researcher and the lead author of the study.

Despite revealing the existence of a tiny percentage of gun “super-owners” in the United States, the researchers were hesitant to draw dire conclusions from that statistic:

Azrael, the lead author of the study, said there was no research on “whether owning a large number of guns is a greater risk factor than owning a few guns.”

“We know almost nothing about that,” she said.

The Guardian further points out that marketing experts say the most devoted 20 percent of a product’s consumers typically account for 80 percent of its sales.
Since 1994
A Word to Our Loyal Readers

Support Snopes and make a difference for readers everywhere.

  • David Mikkelson
  • Doreen Marchionni
  • David Emery
  • Bond Huberman
  • Jordan Liles
  • Alex Kasprak
  • Dan Evon
  • Dan MacGuill
  • Bethania Palma
  • Liz Donaldson
  • Vinny Green
  • Ryan Miller
  • Chris Reilly
  • Chad Ort
  • Elyssa Young

Most Snopes assignments begin when readers ask us, “Is this true?” Those tips launch our fact-checkers on sprints across a vast range of political, scientific, legal, historical, and visual information. We investigate as thoroughly and quickly as possible and relay what we learn. Then another question arrives, and the race starts again.

We do this work every day at no cost to you, but it is far from free to produce, and we cannot afford to slow down. To ensure Snopes endures — and grows to serve more readers — we need a different kind of tip: We need your financial support.

Support Snopes so we continue to pursue the facts — for you and anyone searching for answers.

Team Snopes