Americans Lead in Gun Ownership by Country

Startling Data Puts American Gun Ownership in Global Context

A hand holding a display pistol at an NRA exhibition symbolizes the high rate of gun ownership in the United States, which far outpaces other nations.
Smith and Wesson handguns are displayed during the 2015 NRA Annual Meeting and Exhibits on April 10, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The figure is startling but true. According to data compiled by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and analyzed by The Guardian, Americans own 42 percent of all civilian guns in the world. The figure is especially startling when you consider that the U.S. makes up just 4.4 percent of the world's population.

Just How Many Guns Do Americans Own?

The estimated tally in 2012, according to the UN, was 270 million civilian-owned guns in the U.S., or 88 guns per every 100 hundred people.

 Unsurprisingly, given these figures, the U.S. has the highest number of guns per capita (per person) and the highest rate of gun-related homicides of all developed countries: 29.7 per 1 million people.

By comparison, no other countries come even close to those rates. Among the thirteen developed countries studied, the average rate of gun-related homicide is 4 per 1 million. The nation with the rate closest to the U.S., Switzerland, has just 7.7 per 1 million. (There are other countries with higher rates of gun-related homicide per capita, but not among developed nations.)

Gun rights advocates often suggest that the U.S. has high annual numbers of gun-related crime because of the size of our population, but these statistics -- which examine rates rather than totals -- prove otherwise.

About a Third of American Households Own All Those Guns

In terms of ownership, however, the rate of 88 guns per 100 people is rather misleading.

In reality, the majority of civilian-owned guns in the U.S. are owned by a minority of gun owners. Just over a third of U.S. households own guns, but according to the 2004 National Firearms Survey, 20 percent of those households own a full 65 percent of the total civilian gun stock.

American Gun Ownership Is a Social Problem

In a society as saturated in guns as the U.S., it's important to recognize that gun violence is a social, rather than an individual or psychological problem.

A 2010 study by Appelbaum and Swanson published in Psychiatric Services found that just 3–5 percent of violence is attributable to mental illness, and in most of these cases guns were not used. (However, it's also important to note that those with mental illness are more likely than the general public to commit a serious act of violence.) According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health, alcohol is a much more significant contributing factor to the likelihood of whether someone will commit a violent act.

Sociologists believe that gun violence is a social problem because it is socially created by support for laws and policies that enable gun ownership on a mass scale. It is justified and perpetuated by social phenomena too, like the widespread ideology that guns represent freedom and the troubling discursive trope that guns make society safer, though overwhelming evidence points to the contrary. This social problem is also fueled by sensationalist news coverage and dangerous politicking focused on violent crime, leading the American public to believe that gun crime is more common today than it was two decades ago, despite the fact that it has been on the decline for decades.

According to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, just 12 percent of U.S. adults know the truth.

The connection between the presence of guns in a household and gun-related deaths is undeniable. Countless studies have shown that living in a home where guns are present increases one's risk of dying by homicide, suicide, or by gun-related accident. Studies also show that it is women who are at greater risk than men in this situation, and that guns in the home also increase the risk that a woman suffering domestic abuse will ultimately be killed by her abuser (see the extensive list of publications by Dr. Jacquelyn C. Campbell of Johns Hopkins University).

So, the question then is, why do we as a society insist on denying the very clear connection between the presence of guns and gun-related violence?

This is a pressing area of sociological inquiry if ever there was one.

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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Americans Lead in Gun Ownership by Country." ThoughtCo, Mar. 2, 2017, Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2017, March 2). Americans Lead in Gun Ownership by Country. Retrieved from Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Americans Lead in Gun Ownership by Country." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2018).