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Examining Who Owns Guns In The U.S.


Gun violence and what to do about it is, once again, on the minds of millions of Americans, many who are, once again, urging lawmakers to do something. And, once again, we're reading statistics about how many guns there are in the U.S. But getting hard facts about who owns guns and how many they have, what types of guns they own, why they have them and what they use them for - now that's a difficult task.

There is no national gun registry. And for decades, federal agencies that might have compiled that kind of data as part of research into gun violence were discouraged from doing so. But there are organizations that have tried to step in, including The Trace. It's an independent, nonpartisan newsroom reporting on guns and gun violence. Alex Yablon is a reporter with The Trace, and he joins us now from New York. Welcome.

ALEX YABLON: Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, first, what is your best estimate on how many people own guns in America?

YABLON: Right now, about 22% of Americans own guns. That's according to a survey that was conducted by public health scholars at Harvard and Northeastern Universities in 2015.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As I mentioned, getting definitive numbers on gun ownership in the U.S. is difficult. How does The Trace arrive at its data?

YABLON: So we rely on this survey that was conducted by Harvard and Northeastern because the government can't produce any of its own. The ATF, which is sort of charged with overseeing the sale of guns, and the FBI, which conducts background checks, are very strictly limited in what kind of data they can even collect, never mind publicize. They don't even actually have a registry of guns linked to gun owners. They have records that someone went through a background check, but they don't necessarily know how many guns they bought or what guns they bought. And then lots of people will sell guns in totally unregulated private transactions that no one has any record of.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So 22% of people in this country own a gun right now. Has that number changed over the last 50 years or so?

YABLON: Yes. It's gone down slightly. It used to be closer to 40% in the 1970s. You know, 40 years ago, it was more common for gun owners to own maybe one or two guns. Now people who own guns, there's fewer of them, but they own more guns, and they're more geographically concentrated in the southeast and states like Texas. In states like California or New York or Massachusetts where they've enacted very, very strict gun laws, gun ownership is not as common.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I've read that a vast majority of guns are owned by a small percentage of people. Is that right? I mean, how does it break down?

YABLON: Yeah. According to that Harvard-Northeastern survey, about half of America's guns are owned by about 3% of the population.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Who are they? Do we know? I mean, is there a record of who they are?

YABLON: They tend to be older, they tend to be white, and they tend to be men. They're more concentrated in the South than other parts of the country.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what do we know about the type of firearms Americans own?

YABLON: Actually, the most common kind of firearm by far is a semiautomatic pistol. Those have become the kind of quintessential American gun since the late '80s, early '90s.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you talk to gun owners and you ask them about their attitudes, how are their attitudes shaped by these mass casualty events? And has that changed?

YABLON: I would say that a lot of very ideologically committed gun owners have really taken to heart Wayne LaPierre's statement from after the Sandy Hook mass shooting that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. You know, I think there's a lot of folks who are kind of - they're aware of the scientific literature, the social scientific literature, that shows that having a gun in the home can increase the risk of suicide and that, you know, a home invasion or a mass casualty event is a very, very rare thing. But the power that this sort of threat of being caught in one of these mass shootings exerts on people who own guns is really powerful. I think there's a sense that the only person that they can count on to keep themselves safe is themself.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alex Yablon, reporter for The Trace, thank you very much.

YABLON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.