How many firearms are lost or destroyed in the United States? Is the number of guns in the U.S. increasing or decreasing? The current estimate of the private stock of firearms in the United States is about 363 million (16 million were added in 2013). That number was calculated by the cumulative addition of domestic manufacture plus imports minus exports. This does not count guns shipped to the U.S. military. The figures are rounded to the nearest million. Firearms manufactured before 1899 are not included. The starting figure in 1945 is 47 million . . .
The numbers don’t account for reduction of the gun stock due to wear and tear, loss, destruction or illegal exportation; or increases in the stock from illegal importation, individual or illegal manufacture, or acquisition from military sources.
The primary uncertainty is whether the unknown factors mentioned above result in a net loss or gain of firearms in addition to net known manufacture and importation, minus exports.
There is, of course, illegal importation and exportation of firearms. A prominent Californian legislator, Leland Yee, who pushed for more firearm restrictions was arrested and convicted as the result of an undercover sting operation aimed at the illegal importation of arms. We know that there are illegal exports of arms. The “Fast and Furious” scandal involving the Obama administration oversaw the illegal exportation of two to three thousand arms (that we know of) to Mexican drug cartels. That number was spread over at least two years.
It seems likely that the incentives for illegal exportation are higher than for illegal importation, but the numbers overall appear small, probably less than 10,000 per year or .003% of the total private firearm stock per year.
Gun “buy backs”, or more accurately, gun turn ins, are another factor. A few major cities hold these events each year. The numbers of guns surrendered typically vary from a few dozen to a few hundred. The total numbers are almost certainly less than 10,000 a year. Another insignificant number.
Individual manufacture or illegal manufacture is likely a much larger number. There are numerous videos and instructions on how to make guns on the Internet. There’s a long tradition of individual hobbyists making their own guns in this country. There is significant evidence that criminals engage in the manufacture of illegal guns. Tumbers are, of course, difficult to quantify. At one point, the D.C. police department stated that one fifth of the guns that they confiscated were homemade.
I have personally made legal guns, and know others who have done so. It’s not something that’s casually mentioned to strangers. I suspect that the numbers are in excess of 100,000 per year. That would be one out of a thousand gun owners making one gun per year or about .03 percent. That estimate is likely low, but I am being conservative. With ubiquitous and cheap power tools, inexpensive materials, and emerging technologies such as 3D printing, those numbers will only increase.
Military guns that are transferred to private ownership, legally or illegally, need to be added, too. These firearms aren’t included in the statistics. Millions of guns are sold to the U.S. military, and a great many of them migrate into private hands. The U.S. government has sold millions of surplus rifles and pistols over the years.
I recall seeing barrels of 1903A3 rifles being sold in hardware stores for $29.95 in the 1960s. I still have one of them. At one point, in the middle 1960s, the NRA was offering M1 Carbines to its members for $18 each, as part of a government promotion to get the rifles into private hands.
Any person who has been involved in the gun culture for more than a couple of decades can attest to the ubiquity of military pistols that GIs returning from war brought back with them. Here are some numbers of fairly modern firearms produced for the U.S. military that were sold freely through the mail up until 1968.
- About half a million Krag rifles were produced from 1894 to 1904.
- About 4.65 million 1903 and 1903A3 rifles were produced. .84 million were produced by the start of WWI. Production of the 1903A3 started at about serial number 3 million during WWII. 1.65 mill 1903A3s were produced by the end of WWII.
- 2.19 million M1917 rifles were produced during WWI.
- 6.22 million M1 carbines were manufactured during WWII.
- 5.44 million MI Garands were manufactured, prior to 1957.
- Many of these rifles were declared surplus and sold on the U.S. market prior to the requirements for record keeping of rifles by dealers before 1968.
- Significant numbers were given or sold to other countries as military aid.
- Over 2.5 million .45 ACP pistols were produced for the military by the end of WWII. How many migrated to private hands is unknown. They are commonly seen in private ownership.
At least 189,000 revolvers were in the hands of the military when the U.S. entered WWII. Another 350,000 S&W revolvers were produced for the U.S military during the war. About 48,000 Colt revolvers were produced for the U.S military during WWII. Over half a million revolvers were purchased by the U.S. military prior to the end of WWII. A great many of these have ended up in private hands. My family had one of them, made before WWI.
This well worn Colt is over 100 years old, but functions perfectly. It was produced for the U.S. military.
The total comes to about 22 million guns, of which large percentages were considered obsolete and or surplus before 1968. Enormous numbers of them were sold through the mail before the 1968 gun control act made such sales legally cumbersome and difficult.
The numbers are hard to quantify, but 10 million firearms transferred from the military to private hands seems reasonable. That would be a majority of the rifles and some of the pistols. The Civilian Marksmanship Program continues to transfer former military arms to private hands today.
The most difficult number to quantify is the number of guns that are destroyed through wear, rust, abuse, and loss. Nearly everyone understands that guns are a valuable commodity. It takes very little maintenance to keep a gun from succumbing to rust. A gun set in the corner of a closet is almost certain to be fully functional if it’s brought out 50 years later. Most guns are shot little and stored for long periods. Very few guns are worn out by use. Some are forgotten in the woods. Some are lost in tragic boating accidents. When they are found, they make national news. The numbers appear small, but they exist. The question is, how many are destroyed/damaged/lost each year?
So where does that leave us? Adding the percentages of loss and gain, on the loss side we have about .003% to illegal export, .003% to gun turn ins, and .075% to wear, rust, and loss. On the gain side are roughly .03% homemade or illegally made firearms. Added together they come to a net loss of .051% per year.
When the .051% number is applied to the firearm stock from 1945 onward, the total decrease in the stock would be 5.8 million since 1945. If we double the number, it is still less than 12 million since 1945, close to the number of military guns added.
For an extreme case, increase the estimate by a full order of magnitude, to .51 percent loss per year, a little more than 1 firearm lost or destroyed of every 200 per year. At that extreme rate, the loss from 1945 to 2013 would be 58 million firearms. Add the 10 million military firearms transferred to the stock, and the total in 2013 would be reduced by 48 million.
Those educated guesses indicate that the current 363 million number is probably somewhere between 4 million too low, and 48 million too high, giving us a range of the private stock at the end of 2013 of between 315 million and 367 million. So the current estimate of 363 million is likely close to reality.
With current production, we are adding about 10-16 million firearms per year. At that rate, the losses – for whatever reason – become almost meaningless.
©2015 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice is included.