Many Americans consider the right to bear arms sacred, seeing guns as key to their identities and individual freedoms. Some keep guns for protection, hunting or sport, while others see guns and the lax regulations around them as a threat to life and safety. Recurring tragedies involving guns contribute to a climate of fear in which those positions become more entrenched.
Understanding gun ownership in the US can help inform debates about firearm laws (or lack thereof). Obtaining a precise picture, however, is challenging because no definitive database of gun sales exists. What we have to rely on then are polls and survey data from think tanks and academic researchers, which vary somewhat in their estimates. Still, there are some broad trends that stand out.
Here’s what those polls and surveys tell us about who owns guns in the US.
White men have the highest rates of gun ownership
Three in 10 adults say they personally own a gun, while four in 10 say they live in a household where someone owns a gun, according to a 2017 survey from Pew Research Center.
On the whole, gun owners are more likely to be White and male. They’re also more likely to live in rural areas and identify as Republican.
About 48% of White men say they own a gun, the Pew survey found. By contrast, 24% of White women and 24% of non-White men said they owned a gun. Women of color reported the lowest rates of gun ownership at 16%.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a stark partisan divide in gun ownership. About 44% of adults who identify as Republican or lean Republican say they own a gun, while just 20% of those who identify as Democrat or lean Democrat say they do, according to Pew.
Where a person lives also plays a role. The Pew survey found that 46% of those who lived in rural areas said they owned a gun, while only 28% of suburbanites and 19% of city dwellers owned a gun. The Northeast has the lowest rates of gun ownership at 16%, while roughly a third of people in the South, Midwest and West report personally owning a gun.
There are also some slight variations in gun ownership across educational levels. Those who have a bachelor’s degree or higher are somewhat less likely to own a gun, compared to those who have a high school diploma or only completed some college.
How a person is raised can also influence gun ownership. About 67% of gun owners say they grew up in a gun-owning household, while only 40% of those who don’t own guns did, Pew researchers report.
Only a few gun owners hold a large share of guns
There are more guns in the US than people.
There are about 393 million privately owned firearms in the US, according to an estimate by the Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey – or in other words, 120 guns for every 100 Americans. That’s the highest rate of any country in the world, and more than double the rate of the next country on the list.
A majority of those guns, however, are owned by a minority of people, studies show.
Take, for example, a report published in 2017 by researchers at Harvard and Northeastern universities. The authors estimate that of the 265 million privately owned firearms in the US, about half are owned by 3% of the US adult population. And while about half of gun owners own one or two guns, 8% of gun owners own 10 or more – a figure that amounts to about 40% of the total US gun stock, according to the report.
Another finding that bears that out: National polls show that gun ownership has declined modestly since the 1970s, while FBI firearm background checks show that gun purchases are at record highs. What that suggests is that while the share of gun owners in the US is getting smaller overall, those who do own guns are buying more and more of them.
Most gun owners say they own guns for protection
People own guns for a number of purposes, and most gun owners say they own a gun for more than one reason.
Protection is a motivator for a vast majority of people. A Gallup survey conducted in October 2021 found that 88% of gun owners counted protection against crime as a reason for owning a gun, while 70% counted target shooting and 56% counted hunting as reasons. Similarly, Pew found that two-thirds of gun owners cited protection as a major reason for owning a gun, while about four in 10 cited hunting and three in 10 cited sport shooting as major reasons.
About three-quarters of gun owners see firearms as key to their freedoms, while about half see them as important to their identities, according to Pew.