More firearms in US in the hands of fewer owners

People at a vigil in Connecticut last week for victims of the Las Vegas shooting. It was held outside the National Shooting Sport Foundation to draw attention to gun violence.
People at a vigil in Connecticut last week for victims of the Las Vegas shooting. It was held outside the National Shooting Sport Foundation to draw attention to gun violence.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Study shows just 3% of adult Americans own about half of the total 265m guns in country

WASHINGTON - Ms Lisa Mills, a 55-year-old who works in the field of wildlife biology, has six guns in her Montana home.

Hunting is a part of the American DNA, a way of life in Montana and many other parts of the US, and owning multiple guns is not uncommon. Some of the guns in Ms Mills' house are inherited.

But times have changed. Most critically, while fewer US households own guns, the number of guns has risen. This means those households with guns, own more guns.

About 133 million guns - out of an estimated total of 265 million - are concentrated in the hands of just 3 per cent of adult Americans who own an average of 17 guns each, a recent Harvard and Northeastern University study shows.

The gun industry ratchets up more than US$13 billion (S$18 billion) in annual revenues by some estimates. It reportedly accounts for over 260,000 full-time jobs. And it is growing.

Today there are nearly 10,500 gunmakers in the United States. There are 64,747 legal gun dealers. Last year, digital services company 1point21 Interactive showed how licensed gun dealers outnumber Starbucks locations by nearly six to one.

And every day, 85 Americans die from gun violence in the country.

  • $18b Annual revenues the US gun industry ratchets up.

  • From recreation to protection

  • • The number of privately owned guns in America grew by more than 70 million between 1994 and 2015 to approximately 265 million.

    • Half of that gun stock is owned by only 3 per cent of the population.

    • In 2015, there were 55 million gun owners, or about 10 million more than in 1994.

    • 8 per cent of all gun owners own 10 or more guns, and these owners account for about 40 per cent of the gun stock.

    • Some 63 per cent of all gun owners - and 76 per cent of handgun owners - reported that protection is one of their primary reasons for having a gun. This was the predominant reason among women.

    • In contrast, a 1994 National Firearm Survey found only 46 per cent of owners cited protection as the principal reason for gun ownership; the majority cited recreation, such as hunting or target shooting. Source: Pew Research, and Northeastern and Harvard University survey in November 2015 of 3,949 adult Americans

A total of 47 guns were found in the possession of Stephen Paddock, who opened fire from a high floor at a Las Vegas hotel on Oct 1, killing 58 people at an outdoor concert before taking his own life.

While that far exceeds the average of eight guns per household, it is not uncommon for a single household or owner to have many guns.

Paddock bought his guns in Nevada, Utah, California and Texas - perhaps mostly in Nevada, where gun laws are lax. Dealers who have been interviewed by the media say he passed all background checks.

Mr Sam Rabadi, a retired special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told CNN there are states where "there's a lot of hunting (and) outdoor activities. There are also areas where you have a higher population of collectors". The purchase of that many firearms would not raise a red flag, he said.

Gun buyers must submit a form online, and among other things, declare if they have been charged with or convicted of a felony; have used or are addicted to drugs or any controlled substance; or been convicted of an offence like domestic violence, harassment or stalking.

This is checked against several national databases. But there are gaps. Federal law cannot require states to make information available to agencies that perform background checks. Many fail to voluntarily report to the Federal Bureau Investigation's National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

"As a result, some individuals known to be dangerous can pass background checks and obtain firearms," says the Law Centre to Prevent Gun Violence.

Regulations vary from state to state. In Nevada, it is relatively easy to buy a gun, or more than one at a time. There is no waiting period, "open carry" is legal, and a gun can be carried almost anywhere.

According to Pew Research, gun owners overall are disproportionately male, white, non-urban and from the South. Most guns are in the hands of Republicans, and while many Americans favour stricter background checks, Republicans tend to want fewer restrictions and Democrats more. The powerful National Rifle Association helped Mr Donald Trump win the presidential election and remains a staunch supporter.

The Las Vegas massacre has put under a cloud new proposals folded into an innocuously named Sportsmen's Heritage and Recreational Enhancement (Share) Act to make it easier to buy silencers and harder to restrict armour-piercing bullets. The measure to make silencers available is called the "Hearing Protection Act".

Two days after the Las Vegas massacre, a group of House Democrats called on Speaker Paul Ryan to ensure that Share would not be taken up by the House. Mr Ryan said he did not know when it was going to be scheduled.

"Many American gun owners exist in a social context where gun ownership is the norm. Roughly half of all gun owners (49 per cent) say that all or most of their friends own guns," Pew Research says.

"One key and defining characteristic of gun owners is the extent to which they associate the right to own guns with their own personal sense of freedom - 74 per cent say this right is essential, compared with only 35 per cent of non-gun owners who say the same."

Ms Mills does not hunt, though her friends and family do, and she is part of that DNA. But now, especially after Las Vegas, she is concerned about the increasing use of guns for violent acts.

"I do believe times have changed," she told The Straits Times. "We need much tighter gun control."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 09, 2017, with the headline 'More firearms in US in the hands of fewer owners'. Print Edition | Subscribe