Americans Lead in Gun Ownership by Country

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.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The United States has the highest level of gun ownership per person of any country. This fact 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% of all civilian guns in the world. This figure is especially startling when you consider that the U.S. makes up just 4.4% of the world's population.

How Many Guns 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 developed 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 people. The developed nation with the rate closest to the U.S., Switzerland, has just 7.7 gun-related homicides per 1 million people.

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 prove otherwise.

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% of those households own a full 65% 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 professors Paul Appelbaum and Jeffrey Swanson published in Psychiatric Services found that just 3% to 5% of violence can be attributed to mental illness, and in most of these cases guns were not used. While those with certain types of serious mental illness are more likely than the general public to commit an act of violence, these individuals only make up a small percentage of people with mental illness: most people with a mental illness don’t engage in violent behavior. Moreover, individuals with mental illness are also at a higher risk of being victims 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% 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 accidents. 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).

The question then is, why do we as a society insist on denying the 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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Your Citation
Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Americans Lead in Gun Ownership by Country." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2021, February 16). Americans Lead in Gun Ownership by Country. Retrieved from Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Americans Lead in Gun Ownership by Country." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 7, 2021).

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