Americans Own World’s Largest Arsenal of Firearms: Survey

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Semi-automatics for sale at a British gun show. Photo by Ashley Butte via Flickr

The largest number of firearms in the world are in the hands of civilians located in the US, according to a report by the Small Arms Survey (SAS).

The Survey, an independent research project within the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, estimates the rate of civilian firearm holdings to be 120.5 firearms per 100 residents, compared to less than one firearm for every 100 residents in countries like Indonesia and Japan.

According to the Survey findings, contained in three briefing papers—on firearms held by civilians, by military forces, and by law enforcement agencies—at the end of 2017, there were approximately 1.013 billion firearms throughout 230 countries and autonomous territories in the world.

Of the global total, 84.6 percent were held by civilians, 13.1 percent by military forces, and 2.2 percent by law enforcement agencies.

The one billion figure represents a 15.7 percent global increase in number of firearms worldwide over the past decade.

While this growth is impacted by the steady increase in the global population and the availability of more data sources, contributing factors also include a change in the attitude of firearm production, increased public demand, a decrease in destruction of firearms, and diverse “gun culture,” SAS said.

Global Civilian-Held Firearms

The bulk of the global increase is due to an estimated 32 percent rise (over 200 million more weapons) in civilian-held firearms, when compared to the SAS 2006 survey. At the end of 2017, SAS estimates that there were 857 million firearms in the possession of civilians, over 80 percent of the global total.

This may be attributed to differences in national “gun culture,” defined by SAS as “each country’s distinctive combination of historic and current sources of supply, laws, and attitudes towards firearms ownership and use.”

For example, detailed data shows that in the US there was a dramatic shift in public purchasing patterns after the expiration in 2004 of the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act (informally known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban) towards pistols and semi-automatic rifles.

While public attitude towards firearms is a big factor in changing trends, commercial firearm production is also a driver of the increase, the survey said.

The world’s arms factories are churning out newly manufactured firearms at an increasing pace with less weapons being destroyed, according to SAS. Fueling the increase in public demand, the surplus of production is allowing greater numbers of firearms to be available to civilians, who may or may not be properly trained, adding to concerns about safety.

And these figures may still represent only a portion of the total, the survey said, noting that in much of the world, poor record-keeping and limited reporting requirements complicate estimates of global stockpiles.

However, “the greater willingness and capability of governments to share details about civilian gun ownership in their respective territories is a vital force in this rising tide of knowledge,” said SAS.

Global Military-Owned Firearms

Military-owned firearms are even more difficult to assess, due to chronic secrecy of governments and national security concerns, said the survey.

Nevertheless, SAS estimated that the total number of firearms possessed by military forces is 133 million, representing 13 percent of the global total, although many more are believed to exist.

This number is actually indicative of a downward trend, with the previous SAS global estimate for military firearms as 200 million.

SAS presents three factors contributing to this change: the use of more conservative estimating methods for reserve forces, the use of more recent military personnel data, and the inclusion of some paramilitary force holdings.

Military-owned firearms are also a leading factor in conflict and violence and a crucial point of discussion in diplomacy. The survey shows that military firearms are highly concentrated, with 43 percent of the global total belonging to just two countries (Russian Federation and China).

Such a large stockpile can be rapidly transferred or lost, resulting in serious control and security concerns.

With such different categorizations of military across the world, SAS broke down armed forces into four groups to estimate the ratio of firearms per personnel.

In order of greatest ratio, these include: people’s war militaries which have mass forces and large reserves for politically reliable personnel (4.8 per soldier); military forces that emphasize heavily armed active-duty forces (2.6 per soldier), constabulary militia forces whose goal is only to maintain civil order (1.9 per officer), and reserve militaries which need rapid mobilization of forces for defense (1.8 per solider).

Global Law Enforcement Firearms

As of 2017, SAS estimates the global total of law enforcement firearms to be at least 22.7 million. This represents about 2.2 percent of all firearms identified by the Small Arms Survey.

Similarly to military-owned firearms, law enforcement total firearms have decreased from 25 million according to the 2006 SAS survey.

However, official reports account for only 4.8 million law enforcement firearms, or 21 percent of the estimated total according to SAS.

Law enforcement firearms vary enormously from country to country, with ratios of firearms/officer being 5.1 in Estonia to 0.4 in Tuvalu. The average ratio for the 28 countries reporting official data is 1.7 firearms per sworn law enforcement officer, according to SAS.

Again, due to national security issues, some countries do not report their total firearms for the public. However, progress has been made in the willingness of governments to report totals, allowing for greater research to be conducted.

Although the number of weapons in possession of law enforcement and military agencies decreases, the total number of firearms in global possession continues to rise. Due to a shift towards civilian-ownership, this accumulation calls for attention to global policies, attitudes, and safety.

The study was conducted by Aaron Karp, a senior consultant at the Small Arms Survey.

The complete study on civilian firearms can be downloaded here.

The complete study on military firearms can be downloaded here.

The complete study on law enforcement firearms can be downloaded here.

Laura Binczewski is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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