Americans Owned 423 Million Guns by 2018, Industry Group Estimates

December 5, 2019 Updated: December 5, 2019
FONT BFONT SText size

U.S. civilians have owned about 423 million firearms between 1986 and 2018, according to estimates by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF).

That translates to about five guns for every three American adults.

The firearm industry association released the estimates on Dec. 4, based on firearm manufacturing, import, and export data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF).

Since guns usually have a long lifespan, counting how many have been made, exported, and imported over the past several decades provides a gauge on how many are in the hands of the populace.

The most popular firearms are what NSSF calls “modern sporting rifles,” of which more than 17.7 million are in private ownership today, the group estimated. The most common modern sporting rifle is the AR-15, which is sold by many manufacturers in a variety of configurations.

In 2017, nearly 8 million firearms were produced and imported. Of those, more than 4.4 million were pistols and revolvers, more than 2.8 million were rifles, and nearly 670,000 were shotguns. More than 7.6 million firearms were produced and imported in 2018, based on an interim estimate. Of those, close to 4.3 million were pistols and revolvers, more than 2.8 million were rifles, and more than 500,000 were shotguns.

Firearms and ammunition manufacturing—a $4.1 billion industry—employed some 12,000 people in 2017.

“These figures show the industry that America has a strong desire to continue to purchase firearms for lawful purposes,” said Joe Bartozzi, NSSF president, in a release.

He noted that “the modern sporting rifle continues to be the most popular centerfire rifle sold in America today” and attributed the “continued popularity of handguns” to “a strong interest by Americans to protect themselves and their homes, and to participate in the recreational shooting sports.”

Sales Growth Picks Up

The NSSF also produces gun sales estimates, based on an analysis of data from the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check (NICS) system.

“While not a direct correlation to firearms sales, the … data provides a more accurate picture of current market conditions,” NSSF said in a footnote to the data.

The data indicates that gun sales more than doubled between 2005 and 2016, reaching more than 15.7 million in 2016. However, sales dropped by more than 11 percent in 2017 and then more than 6 percent in 2018, to some 13.1 million.

“With the prospect of relaxed gun laws for the next four years, demand has diminished and gun sales in the U.S. have waned,” The DataFace, a San Francisco data analysis company, reported in 2018.

In recent months, however, sales have started to pick up again, especially in September (up 15 percent) and October (up 10 percent).

The acceleration in September and October followed heightened gun-regulation rhetoric from then-Democratic presidential candidate and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who advocated for mandatory government buybacks of AR-15s and other “assault rifles.”

In early August, shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and in El Paso, Texas, left a combined 32 people dead and 51 injured.

Mass shootings are usually followed by an increase in gun sales, due to buyers’ safety concerns or because people expect a backlash to ownership from gun control advocates.

Rifles have been involved in less than 3 percent of gun homicides in 2018, based on data that most police agencies provide to the FBI.

Follow Petr on Twitter: @petrsvab