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How many guns? Gun ownership around the world explained

There are an estimated 875 million civilian, law enforcement, and military firearms in the world. This works out at approximately one gun per every seven people worldwide. Without the United States, the figure drops to about one gun for every ten people[1].

650 million guns out of the 875 million are in the hands of civilians, either held legally or illegally[2]. American citizens own some 270 million of these[3].

Civilian ownership can range from 88.8 firearms per 100 people in the United States, to one firearm or less for every 100 in countries like Japan (0.6 per 100 people)[4].

According to Oxfam[5], 12 billion bullets are produced each year, nearly two bullets for every person in the world.

These are just some snapshots of gun circulation and ownership. Since these figures are estimates, the numbers could be higher (or lower). Secrecy surrounding military and law enforcement figures, the lack of the requirement for gun registration in certain countries, and the missing guns from government stockpiles makes the task of collecting accurate data on the number of firearms in existence near to impossible.

The Military
Estimating stock: It is estimated that state militaries hold approximately 200 million firearms[6]. Experts have no choice but to estimate as most governments do not share data on how many firearms they possess. This could be due to security reasons or that the state is so inefficient it has no idea how many are contained in stockpiles. Furthermore, there is no standard reporting mechanism for official military small arms holdings[7].

So experts look at the number of military personnel to calculate the number of firearms possessed by a particular state. Countries reduced personnel after the Cold War, and because most of the weapons remain in existence according to the Small Arms Survey[8], their largest recorded personnel numbers since the introduction of automatic weapons (mid-1960s to the 1970s) are the most useful guide to total military inventories. However, calculating a single ratio based solely on this is too crude, so more detailed estimates come from the national military doctrines of countries.

These doctrines are “Fundamental principles by which the military forces guide their actions in support of objectives. It is authoritative but requires judgement in application.”[9] According to the Survey, the national military doctrines are very useful for estimating the number of arms of ground forces, as they generate overall firearm numbers at the time when modern forces were at their largest.

The Survey notes that when forces shrink, their equipment is in surplus and is usually in storage or destroyed. Yet this way of estimating does not take into account any subsequent procurement of new equipment.

The 20 largest military small arms inventories: Using this procedure, the Small Arms Survey[10] examined 20 countries with the largest military inventories . It was estimated (although Ukraine and the United States provided total figures) that almost 25 per cent of the global military total belongs to just two countries, Russia and China. 50 per cent of the global total belongs to 20 countries.

The risks of stockpiling: Stockpiles of military weapons are often at risk of theft, either by outsiders or conveniently lost by the military’s own soldiers. In the 1990s, Ukraine “inherited huge stockpiles” when it broke away from the Soviet Union[11]. Hundreds of thousands of weapons were ‘lost’ by the Russian Federation’s Red Army, making their way into the black market. When the government of Siad Barre in Somalia collapsed in the early 90s, government arsenals were pillaged of hundreds of thousands of weapons by warring clans[12].

In 1997, the people of Albania looted hundreds of thousands of AK-47 assault rifles[13] from military depots across the country following the collapse of the pyramid investment schemes[14]. In Iraq, a combination of thousands of firearms distributed by Saddam Hussein’s government to its supporters in the final days of the war and the looting of guns from abandoned armouries in the aftermath of the regime’s collapse[15] led to “unprecedented social disorder”, as well as a dramatic increase in the number of firearm homicides in Baghdad[16].

Law enforcement
It is estimated that there are 25 million firearms held by law enforcement agencies[17]. But like military stockpiles, few law enforcement agencies publish figures on their inventories, so the expert has no choice but to estimate.

Estimation for law enforcement firearms is quite different compared to military stockpiles. According to the Small Arms Survey, estimation is based on the extrapolation of weapons-per-officer ratios from the total numbers of officers. During this process, the expert has to think about which agencies of the state should be classified as ‘law enforcement’ and how many sworn officers are there as opposed to employees of the law enforcement agency, who do not have the powers to arrest and are routinely armed. For example, 2010 figures for the United States showed there were 1,013,608 state and local police employees, but only 705,000 were sworn officers[18] .

Then, as a general rule, police are assumed to be armed at a rate of 1.3 firearms per officer. The Survey goes onto say that different levels of armament can be given providing they have been convincingly established. For example, if a particular country uses gendarmes, military bodies armed like light infantry but charged with police duties, then the rate is 1.8 firearms per sworn officer.

Civilians
650 million guns out of the 875 million are possessed by civilians[19] which outnumber military firearms by over three to one[20]. There are a few ways to gain data on the number of civilians who own a gun. For example, by examining official registration records. But laws on gun ownership vary from country to country, and some don’t require civilians to register guns. Furthermore, gun registration is where the gun has been legally obtained, thus solely relying on this method discounts all the illegal guns in circulation. According to the Small Arms Survey, around 79 million civilian firearms are known to be registered with authorities[21].

Other ways include carrying out polls and surveys. This may reveal the number of illegal firearms in, say, a household. But respondents may be reluctant to share the number of guns they possess, and polls may therefore not provide reliable results. So once again, it’s left to the expert to estimate the number of firearms possessed by civilians. According to the Small Arms Survey, “the most common figures on gun ownership often are personal estimates by knowledgeable observers[22]. Slightly worryingly however, is that estimates can differ hugely. The Survey notes how for Switzerland and Yemen, estimates diverge by a factor of ten[23].

As the Survey concludes, “Comprehensive estimates of civilian gun ownership tend to be the most elusive where they are needed most.”[24] Numbers on civilian gun ownership have to be looked at with healthy scepticism – not just the highest numbers, but the lowest numbers too.

The largest civilian firearms arsenals for 178 countries:

CountryAverage firearms per 100 peopleLow firearms per 100 peopleHigh firearms per 100 peopleAverage total all civilian firearms
United States of America88.882.295.3270,000,000
Yemen54.828.681.111,500,000
Switzerland45.730.960.53,400,000
Finland45.331.559.12,400,000
Serbia37.826.049.63,050,000
Cyprus36.436.436.4275,000
Saudi Arabia35.035.035.06,000,000
Iraq34.224.643.99,750,000
Uruguay31.831.831.81,100,000
Sweden31.623.339.92,800,000

 

The smallest civilian firearms arsenals for 178 countries:

CountryAverage firearms per 100 peopleLow firearms per 100 peopleHigh firearms per 100 peopleAverage total all civilian firearms
Tunisia0.10.10.19,000
East Timor0.30.30.33,000
Solomon Islands0.40.40.41,800
Ghana0.40.20.580,000
Ethiopia0.40.40.4320,000
Singapore0.50.50.522,000
Indonesia0.50.50.51,000,000
Eritrea0.50.50.520,000
Fiji0.50.50.54,000
Bangladesh0.50.40.6700,000

 

This article from research by Gun Baby Gun researcher Jenna Corderoy

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[1] Small Arms Survey, ‘Completing the Count: Civilian Firearms’ (2007) Cambridge University Press p.39 http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/A-Yearbook/2007/en/full/Small-Arms-Survey-2007-Chapter-02-EN.pdf (accessed on 14th March 2014)
[2] Small Arms Survey, ‘Completing the Count: Civilian Firearms’ (2007) Cambridge University Press p.39 http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/A-Yearbook/2007/en/full/Small-Arms-Survey-2007-Chapter-02-EN.pdf (accessed on 14th March 2014)
[3] Small Arms Survey, ‘Completing the Count: Civilian Firearms’ (2007) Cambridge University Press p.39 http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/A-Yearbook/2007/en/full/Small-Arms-Survey-2007-Chapter-02-EN.pdf (accessed on 14th March 2014)
[4] Small Arms Survey, ‘Completing the Count: Civilian Firearms’ (2007) Cambridge University Press Annexe 4: The largest civilian firearms arsenals for 178 countries http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/A-Yearbook/2007/en/Small-Arms-Survey-2007-Chapter-02-annexe-4-EN.pdf (accessed on 14th March 2014)
[5] Oxfam, ‘Stop A War, Stop A Bullet: Why ammunition must be included in the Arms Trade Treaty’ (2012) http://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/stop-bullet-stop-war-arms-trade-treaty-310512-en.pdf (accessed on 14th March 2014)
[6] Small Arms Survey, ‘Completing the Count: Civilian Firearms’ (2007) Cambridge University Press p.41 http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/A-Yearbook/2007/en/full/Small-Arms-Survey-2007-Chapter-02-EN.pdf (accessed on 14th March 2014)
[7] Small Arms Survey, ‘Data Sources and the Estimation of Military-owned Small Arms’ (2013) http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/H-Research_Notes/SAS-Research-Note-34.pdf (accessed on 14th March 2014)
[8] Small Arms Survey, ‘Data Sources and the Estimation of Military-owned Small Arms’ (2013) p.2 http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/H-Research_Notes/SAS-Research-Note-34.pdf (accessed on 14th March 2014)
[9] NATO (2008) http://www.fas.org/irp/doddir/other/nato2008.pdf (accessed on 14th March 2014)
[10] Small Arms Survey, ‘Data Sources and the Estimation of Military-owned Small Arms’ (2013) http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/H-Research_Notes/SAS-Research-Note-34.pdf (accessed on 14th March 2014)
[11] Frontline World, ‘Ukraine: Cashing in on Illegal Arms’ http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/sierraleone/context.html (accessed on 14th March 2014)
[12] Small Arms Survey, ‘From Chaos to Coherence?’ (2004) Oxford University Press p.54 http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/A-Yearbook/2004/en/Small-Arms-Survey-2004-Chapter-02-EN.pdf (accessed on 14th March 2014)
[13] New York Times, ‘Albanian Village Finds Boom in Gun-Running’, 24th April 1997 http://www.nytimes.com/1997/04/24/world/albanian-village-finds-boom-in-gun-running.html (accessed on 14th March 2014)
[14] BBC, ‘Interview with an arms smuggler’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/programmes/global_crime_report/crime/armssmuggler.shtml (accessed on 14th March 2014)
[15] The Guardian, ‘US troops in Iraq gun crackdown’, 15th May 2003 http://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/may/15/iraq.usa1 (accessed on 14th March 2014)
[16] Small Arms Survey, ‘From Chaos to Coherence?’ (2004) Oxford University Press p.44 http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/A-Yearbook/2004/en/Small-Arms-Survey-2004-Chapter-02-EN.pdf (accessed on 14th March 2014)
[17] Small Arms Survey, ‘Estimating Law Enforcement Firearms’ (2012) http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/H-Research_Notes/SAS-Research-Note-24.pdf (accessed on 14th March 2014)
[18] Small Arms Survey, ‘Estimating Law Enforcement Firearms’ (2012) http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/H-Research_Notes/SAS-Research-Note-24.pdf (accessed on 14th March 2014)
[19] Small Arms Survey, ‘Completing the Count: Civilian Firearms’ (2007) Cambridge University Press p.39 http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/A-Yearbook/2007/en/full/Small-Arms-Survey-2007-Chapter-02-EN.pdf (accessed on 14th March 2014)
[20] Small Arms Survey, ‘Data Sources and the Estimation of Military-owned Small Arms’ (2013) p.1 http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/H-Research_Notes/SAS-Research-Note-34.pdf (accessed on 14th March 2014)
[21] Small Arms Survey, ‘Completing the Count: Civilian Firearms’ (2007) Cambridge University Press p.39 http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/A-Yearbook/2007/en/full/Small-Arms-Survey-2007-Chapter-02-EN.pdf (accessed on 14th March 2014)
[22] Small Arms Survey, ‘Estimating Civilian Owned Firearms’ (2011) http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/H-Research_Notes/SAS-Research-Note-9.pdf (accessed on 14th March 2014)
[23] Small Arms Survey, ‘Estimating Civilian Owned Firearms’ (2011) p.2 http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/H-Research_Notes/SAS-Research-Note-9.pdf (accessed on 14th March 2014)
[24] Small Arms Survey, ‘Estimating Civilian Owned Firearms’ (2011) p.3 http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/H-Research_Notes/SAS-Research-Note-9.pdf (accessed on 14th March 2014)