At HuntingMark we have a general rule of thumb not to get political. Firearms can be a highly-charged topic, as can the right to bear arms, but our focus is on lawful, responsible gun ownership and just plain cool stuff.
In the wake of tragic mass shootings like the ones in Colorado and Atlanta, gun owners and second amendment advocates like myself can find ourselves in a tricky situation of standing firm in defense of our own rights while trying to push the conversation about mass killings and violence in a productive direction to reduce the amount of death and violence in our country.
One of the best ways to do that is to simply present data and let it speak for itself. Neither myself nor HuntingMark is intending to advocate for any specific policy or position, we are simply presenting useful data for anyone wanting to be more educated on the presence of firearms in the U.S.
The U.S. States With The Most Guns Per Capita
The first thing that must be said here is this: no one knows the answer to this question. The figures that the ATF publishes each year, which have been widely circulated and misinterpreted (looking at you, CBS), are based on the number of NFA items that have been registered or transferred.
There are a few issues with this. First, only firearms that have special restrictions on them like fully automatic weapons, short-barreled best shotguns, etc. will appear on this list. Second, items that are not firearms like silencers, grenades, etc. are included on the list. I know a lot of people with a lot of guns, and most of them don’t own a single NFA item.
Here’s what we can do. We can use the ATF information as a starting point and compare it to other data like polls from the RAND Corporation and get a pretty good sense.
This won’t tell us definitively how many actual firearms there are, but it will fairly accurately portray the differences from state to state, which is even more useful when it comes to evaluating the relationship between guns and violent crime and the effects of different policy prescriptions as they are applied in local areas.
We can also use other information such as the number of firearms manufactured and exported in a given year to give us a fairly good estimate of how many guns are owned by Americans. More on that further down. You can see the per capita figures multiplied by 1000 on this interactive map.
Each State Ranking by Per Capita Gun Ownership
A reminder for those skimming or speed-reading: no one knows the answer to this question. The table below is pulled from ATF data about registered or transferred NFA items. That said, this data is likely to correlate well with overall firearm ownership, so a state that’s high on this list is likely also high up when it comes to overall firearm ownership and a state that’s low here should be low there as well.
If you’re interested in generally where states fall in relation to each other, this data is useful. If you’re wondering how many actual guns are in circulation in the US right now, this data by itself is not particularly helpful, especially since NFA items purchased by law enforcement agencies are included in the calculation.
137,346 3.42 %
237.31 3.52 %
83,236 28.3 %
14.30 27.75 %
44,739 26.87 %
24.96 28.55 %
136,731 48.89 %
17.96 44.8 %
390,946 27 %
45.80 26.04 %
8,367 42.49 %
13.41 42.34 %
97,550 33.89 %
30.43 29.53 %
830,109 41.01 %
28.63 37.64 %
132,471 33.59 %
19.39 31.34 %
37,479 77.37 %
42.37 74.34 %
103,881 -1.63 %
20.18 -4.01 %
4,784 13.28 %
4.52 13.18 %
317,858 34.47 %
24.83 34.5 %
83,141 35.45 %
19.71 33.01 %
90,884 27.52 %
22.97 26.69 %
187,478 8.12 %
16.04 7.86 %
24,365 83.58 %
31.97 81.97 %
196,237 28.9 %
18.71 26.25 %
87,766 15.17 %
4.51 17.49 %
116,045 18.92 %
55.34 18.43 %
95,848 66.67 %
10.79 68.87 %
63,713 -0.66 %
46.86 -1.89 %
104,998 36.56 %
34.09 32.9 %
34,035 53.08 %
17.59 51.94 %
27,467 24.1 %
25.70 21.97 %
98,828 35.39 %
16.10 34.86 %
69,034 94.49 %
23.20 95.09 %
107,743 35.86 %
19.10 34.35 %
93,297 41.91 %
9.34 41.55 %
39,779 7.07 %
5.72 5.61 %
126,767 22.94 %
20.97 23.05 %
18,695 21.63 %
13.91 20.83 %
127,434 9.08 %
27.41 9.91 %
99,305 22.5 %
22.23 22.13 %
60,783 15.48 %
20.86 15.46 %
46,613 63.59 %
14.77 63.07 %
142,961 25.38 %
21.24 24.18 %
150,212 2.54 %
11.85 3.62 %
69,405 40.03 %
38.84 34.53 %
9,196 17.01 %
6.49 17.88 %
251,503 32.34 %
23.69 30.01 %
497,078 44.8 %
23.14 41.47 %
District of Columbia
64,273 35.92 %
91.07 33.65 %
5,565 14.69 %
5.71 13.39 %
75,278 -8.64 %
21.11 -8.04 %
126,081 36.4 %
21.89 32.77 %
386,795 12.23 %
9.79 12.26 %
103,641 29.81 %
34.34 29.21 %
224,266 24.77 %
30.81 20.26 %
23,455 48.22 %
32.06 49.89 %
177,732 9.95 %
36.24 9.31 %
Difference From Previous Data in Percentage is mentioned
Calculation: Number of Weapons / Population x 1000
The figures on this chart are the number of NFA items per thousand residents, and there aren’t a lot of surprises here, except Washington, D.C. being second only to Wyoming. Considering that automatic firearms, 3-round burst rifles, explosives, and other things common to law enforcement agencies in metro areas are included in this data, that could explain D.C.’s #2 spot.
The states in the bottom half of the list are not much of a surprise, either, and are pretty much the same states that round out the bottom of the polls from the RAND corporation. The main exception here is Connecticut, which is much lower down on the RAND list than on this one.
There is one big question I take away from this list: what on earth is going on in Wyoming? Knowing that this is specifically about restricted items that require special permission from the ATF to purchase or transfer, and that it includes law enforcement agencies, how did a mostly rural state with next-to-no crime end up with more than twice as many as second place?
Demographics of Gun Ownership in the United States:
I think most people drastically underestimate just how many guns there are in circulation in the United States. Overall, in the US more than 4 in 10 adults report that they live in a household with a firearm. There are large differences between men and women and rural and urban dwellers, but even the lowest demographic, women, have 19% ownership rates.
So 1 in 5 women own a gun, and nearly half of all men own a gun, though there are some differences across racial lines there as well. Considering that many gun owners own more than one firearm, the conventional wisdom that there are probably around 300 million guns in circulation in the United States right now is probably pretty close to the mark.
Even in urban areas, there’s a gun behind every fourth door, and in rural areas it’s every other door. Again, the goal of this article is not to get political, but my personal feeling is that if the mere presence of guns was the cause of violent crime, the U.S. would be a constant bloodbath.
I do not mean to make light of the gun violence and other violent crimes that do occur; according to Pew, 44% of adults say they know someone who has been shot (though this includes accidents).
Every innocent life lost is a tragedy, and I believe 99.99% of us on both sides of the aisle want to find a way to reduce mass killings and violent crime regardless of the weapons used.
The Ten States With the Most Registered Guns
If we don’t calculate it per thousand residents, and just look at the total numbers of registered guns, we see that Texas jumps to the top of the list (and I don’t think anyone is surprised), followed by Florida and Virginia. What’s interesting is to see California so high on the list, but considering how populous California is, it makes sense once you think about it.
Texas had 830,109 registered NFA items as of 2019 according to the ATF, which is significantly higher than Florida in the #2 spot. Florida has 497, 078, followed by Virginia with 390,946 and California with 386,795.
Pennsylvania and Georgia come in at numbers 5 and 6 with 317,858 and 251,503 respectively, and the top 10 is rounded out by Arizona, North Carolina, Ohio, and Alabama. Alabama at the bottom has 177,732, which shows a fast drop-off just within the top 10 states.
There are a lot of reasons why someone might purchase an NFA item since they cover everything from suppressors to explosives, so it’s difficult to speculate on why states like Texas and Wyoming are so high. Suppressors can be great to have anytime you’re shooting with other people or hunting.
Guns Add Billions to the Economy:
More specifically, guns add billions to the tax base. Firearms businesses paid over $4 billion in federal taxes and almost $3 billion in state taxes in 2020, not to mention the $665 million in excise taxes paid by firearms manufacturers.
Excise taxes function similarly to sales taxes, but they take place at the point of manufacture rather than the point of sale. Considering that the taxes alone number in the billions, it stands to reason that the actual amount of dollars spent in the firearms industry is in the tens of billions of dollars.
Indeed, according to NSSF.org, the full economic impact of the firearms industry just in the United States is over $63 billion dollars annually. Over 300,000 full time jobs were created and almost $20 billion in wages were paid in 2020.
This goes right along with what I mentioned earlier about how easy it is to underestimate how many guns are in circulation right now, and how many new guns are sold each year. Not only that, but how much ammunition, high-capacity magazines, optics, and other accessories are already in circulation.
They are already everywhere, and uncertain socio-political circumstances always push more people to buy more.
How Many Firearms Are Manufactured Each Year?
Here is where we can get another great level of insight into just how many guns are actually in circulation. The ATF keeps record of how many firearms of different types are manufactured, exported, and imported each year. The number of firearms manufactured each year varies, and it can actually vary drastically. Here is a list of all the firearms manufactured in the US since 1986:
As you can see, there has only been one year in the last 20+ in which fewer than 3 million firearms were manufactured, and in 2016 the number topped 11 million manufactured. The number of firearms made is likely to very closely parallel how many firearms are purchased, so this should be a close indicator of how many were purchased in a given year.
The vast majority of these firearms stay here in the states with only a few hundred thousand each year being exported. You can see how many are exported in this chart from the ATF:
While there are a healthy number of firearms being exported, and that has trended upward in the last decade, far more firearms are imported than exported. In 2018, for example, 4,305,851 firearms were imported but only 554,237 were exported. You can see all the data for the years from 1986-2019 on this chart:
To use this information to accurately calculate how many firearms are in circulation, you’d need to take into account the average lifespan of a firearm, and how many may be returned due to defects, damaged in some irreparable way, sold to a pawn shop, or simply lost. This also would not account for firearms that are privately built or assembled from parts purchased online.
This data also does not distinguish between firearms manufactured or imported for military use, law enforcement, and private civilian use, so it’s really not specific enough to draw any important conclusions from, especially when taken in isolation.
Registered Weapons in Each State
You can see the categories of different NFA items and use our interactive chart to even sort by each type of item. Interestingly, Florida has the most machine guns, Texas has (by far) the most silencers, and California has the most destructive devices, which would be things like grenades and other explosives.
“Any other weapon” is a bit of a catch-all phrase that can be a bit misleading, as again it only applies to NFA items that are not common enough to warrant their own category. This does not apply to other weapons that are not registered by the ATF, which would be the vast majority of firearms owned in the United States.
Additional Information and Thoughts
The ATF also keeps track of how many background checks they conduct each month and year, which can give a rough accounting of how many firearms were purchased.
There are a few situations in which a background check might not take place.
The most relevant of these is that many states have permitting programs that allow someone to bypass getting a background check every time they purchase a firearm as long as they have a current, qualifying permit. Background checks are conducted to get the qualifying permit as well as other criteria that have to be met.
Considering that those who have qualifying permits are among the most likely to own multiple firearms, this could play a big role in the usefulness of this data.
Any firearm transfers or sales that take place online have to be shipped to a licensed FFL dealer and a background check conducted on the buyer before the firearm can be transferred, and it’s illegal to knowingly sell a firearm offline to someone who is not allowed to have one.
Private sales also would not make a difference in how many guns are in circulation since they already were.
My Final Thoughts
Love ‘em, hate ‘em, or indifferent, guns are a firmly entrenched part of American culture and society. Literally hundreds of millions of firearms are already in circulation, and with modern technology like 3D printing allowing the private construction of high capacity magazines and even most components of a firearm, the toothpaste isn’t going back in the tube.
It may seem to be more straightforward to try to reduce violence by getting rid of guns, but not only would that leave the underlying psychological, societal, and familial problems that lead to violence unaddressed, it also wouldn’t be any easier to accomplish even if it would work.
More Information on Guns: