Study: 70 million more firearms added to US gun stock over past 20 years

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By Greg St. Martin

News at Northeastern

The esti­mated number of privately-owned guns in America grew by more than 70 million—to approx­i­mately 265 million—between 1994 and 2015, and half of that gun stock is owned by only 3 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, according to a com­pre­hen­sive national survey co-led by North­eastern University.

The survey, con­ducted in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Har­vard Uni­ver­sity, is the first nation­ally rep­re­sen­ta­tive survey of firearm own­er­ship and use in more than a decade, according to Matthew Miller, pro­fessor of health sci­ences and epi­demi­ology at Northeastern.

This is the first survey in over a decade to assess why people own guns, how many guns they own, and what their atti­tudes about guns are,” Miller said.

Long guns, such as rifles and shot­guns, make up the majority of the U.S. gun stock. But the study found that hand­guns rep­re­sent the majority of new guns acquired over the past 20 years, making up 42 per­cent of the total civilian-owned gun­stock in the U.S., com­pared to one-third two decades ago. Although the per­centage of adult gun owners in America has slightly declined—22 per­cent in 2015, com­pared to 25 per­cent in 1994—because of pop­u­la­tion growth, in 2015 there were approx­i­mately 10 mil­lion more U.S. gun owners (55 mil­lion) than there were in 1994 (45 mil­lion). The researchers report that gun owners each own, on average, more guns today (five) than they did two decades ago (four).

Photo via istock
Photo via istock

Gun own­er­ship has become mod­estly more con­cen­trated,” Miller said, noting that while the median gun owner owns two guns, 8 per­cent of all gun owners own 10 or more guns and these owners account for about 40 per­cent of the gun stock. Miller stressed that this finding should not dis­tract from the broader obser­va­tions in the study that approx­i­mately one in every three Americans—including one in three children—currently live in homes with firearms, which, he empha­sized, we know places all house­hold mem­bers at ele­vated risk of injury and death, espe­cially from suicide.

Miller under­scored that the survey shows a dra­matic shift in the moti­va­tions for gun own­er­ship. Nearly two-thirds (63 per­cent) of all gun owners surveyed—and 76 per­cent of handgun owners—reported that pro­tec­tion was one of their pri­mary rea­sons for own­er­ship. Miller said these find­ings are in stark con­trast to the mid-1990s, when the last com­pre­hen­sive survey to assess rea­sons for gun own­er­ship, the 1994 National Firearm Survey,  found that 46 per­cent of gun owners cited pro­tec­tion as the prin­cipal reason for gun own­er­ship (the majority cited recre­ation, such as hunting or target shooting).

What’s seems to have changed over time is the type of guns U.S. civil­ians own and the rea­sons they own them,” he said.

The researchers also asked owners about how they acquired their guns. Of respon­dents who said they acquired their most recent gun in the past two years, approx­i­mately 80 per­cent said they pur­chased them, while the rest said they got them as gifts, through inher­i­tance, or by other non-purchase ways. Of those who pur­chased their guns, three-quarters said they bought them at a store, while the rest said they acquired them through pur­chase from a family member, friend, gun show, pawn shop, or online.

The researchers noted that the study can help inform public health, public safety, and public policy dis­cus­sions around guns and gun transfers.

It’s a building block for any kind of public health assess­ment to reduce gun-related vio­lence,” Miller said. “It’s incon­ceiv­able to do some­thing about, say lung cancer, without knowing who smokes, how much they smoke, and why they smoke. It’s been over a decade since we’ve had a good survey mea­sure of why [people] own guns in this country, what types of guns they own, and how often they pur­chase or oth­er­wise transfer guns to one another.”

Con­sis­tent with past sur­veys, the researchers’ find­ings indi­cate that gun owners overall are dis­pro­por­tion­ately male, white, non-urban, and from the South. Some dif­fer­ences, how­ever, emerged in this new survey when com­paring owners of only hand­guns or long guns to those who own both. For example, the researchers found that respon­dents who owned only hand­guns were just as likely to live in urban envi­ron­ments as rural ones, and to be demo­graph­i­cally more diverse com­pared with owners of long guns.

Other find­ings:
•    5 per­cent of gun owners reported having dis­posed of a gun in the past five years, with 35 per­cent of those owners indi­cating that was by sale to a family member or friend.
•    2.5 per­cent of those sur­veyed reported having had a gun stolen within the past five years, accounting for an esti­mated 250,000–550,000 guns per year
•    70 mil­lion guns changed hands over past five years, the majority of which through pur­chase
•    Female gun owners were more likely than male gun owners to report owning any gun for protection

The find­ings are based on a survey in November 2015 of 3,949 adult Amer­i­cans, sam­pled so as to allow nation­ally rep­re­sen­ta­tive esti­mates. The com­plete find­ings will be pub­lished next year by the Rus­sell Sage Foundation.

(Reprinted with permission from News at Northeastern)

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