FIREARM AVAILABILITY AND OWNERSHIP

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To understand the relationship between gun violence and gun availability,

it is important to have accurate information about gun ownership. How

many firearms are there in the United States? How many households own

firearms? How many handguns are there in the United States?

Because most states do not require registration or licensing of firearms

and therefore have incomplete record-keeping, inaccessible data, and unobserved

levels of illegal firearm ownership (Azrael et al., 2004), most firearm

research must make use of alternative measures. The two principal methods

for directly measuring the U.S. civilian stock of guns are (1) productionbased

estimates calculated from domestic manufacturing, export, and import

data and (2) nationally representative surveys that ask respondents

about gun ownership (Kleck, 1997).

Scholars have also used a varied list of indirect measures or proxies to

measure firearms availability and ownership patterns, including the percentage

of suicides or homicides committed with a firearm, the fatal firearm accident

rate, gun magazine subscription rates, the National Rifle Association membership

rate, the hunting license rate, and the number of federal firearm licenses

(Miller et al., 2002; Azrael et al., 2004; Duggan, 2001; Corzine et al., 2000;

Kleck, 1997). While all of these measures shed light on the relationship between

gun ownership and violence, they also all suffer from measurement

errors that are difficult to estimate.3 In Chapter 2, the committee recommends

a program of research to improve the ability to measure gun ownership. For

this section we use production and sales data to give the reader a rough idea of

gun ownership in the United States.

Production-Based Estimates

Firearm production statistics are derived from reports of firearms manufacture,

import, and export made to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and

Firearms. Estimates of firearm availability are derived by adding the net

growth in the number of firearms (manufactures plus imports minus ex-

3For a thorough discussion of the limitations of these measures, see Chapter 7.

ports) to a base measure of the firearms stock.4 Table 3-2 presents production-

based estimates of the size of the civilian firearms stock based on a

cumulated total since 1999. As the table shows, in 1999 there were more

than 258 million firearms in the United States, 36 percent of them handguns.

For every 1,000 people in the United States in 1999 there were nearly

926 firearms, 336 of which were handguns.

From 1950 to 1999, the per capita rate of overall firearms availability

increased 143 percent, while handguns alone increased 259 percent. These

data suggest that in recent years the rate of increase has slowed: the annual

number of new handguns introduced to market has declined since 1994,

while annual introduction of other firearms has remained relatively stable.