Fundamentally, tracking gun ownership in the United States can be done in two ways. One is gun sales, which show gun ownership trends over a brief period. The other, a longer-term and perhaps more accurate measure, is gun ownership by households. The Federal Bureau of Investigation tracks the first of these two measurements. A recent study from the Rand Corporation looks at household level ownership over a period of 36 years.
In terms of sales, the FBI tracks gun sales and publishes a list of how many are handled as part of its National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Each month, the figures are reported by state. Nearly everyone put through this system qualifies as a buyer. People who are excluded usually have criminal records. Of the more than 300 million checks that have been done since 1998, there have only been 1.5 million denials. The data is, therefore, the best proxy for U.S. gun sales available.
Gun sales have soared in the past year. They reached 28,826,449 by the end of September. That is more than the 28,369,750 for all of last year. Growing civil unrest may have prompted people to buy guns for personal and family protection. Another theory is that chaos brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic is a major cause. A new UC Davis School of Medicine study about fear of violence reports that: “The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated persistent structural, economic, and social inequities in the conditions that contribute to violence and its consequences.”
As Rand looked at the 16-year period to find those longer-term trends, it published a research paper titled “State-Level Estimates of Household Firearm Ownership.” It is part of a larger project called the Gun Policy Ownership initiative. The research paper relied on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Guns & Ammo magazine, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and the U.S. Census Bureau.
The information was distilled into what Rand called “State-Level Estimates of the Average Household Firearm Ownership Rate, 1980–2016.” The conclusion allowed Rand to estimate what percentage of people have a gun in their home.
Montana was at the top of the list at 66.3%, followed closely by Wyoming at 66.2%. Alaska was at 64.5%, followed by Idaho at 60.1%. Rand had no explanation for the cluster of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
At the other end of the spectrum, gun ownership in New Jersey and Massachusetts was at 14.7% of households. That was followed by Rhode Island at 14.8% and Hawaii at 14.9%.
Gun ownership by state varies widely, as do gun purchases. There seems to be no single definite research about the patterns. What is clear is that American gun ownership figures are huge.
Percentage of Households With Gun(s)
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