A new study has revealed that of the estimated 1.013 billion smalls arms worldwide, civilians hold 857 million of them, a 32 percent increase since 2006. The study’s authors attribute the rise both to better reporting data and to rising gun ownership in the United States, whose citizens hold 40 percent of the world’s civilian firearms.
“With acquisition averaging around 14 million guns annually during the last five years, growth of civilian holdings in the United States contributes disproportionately to the increase of the global firearms stockpile,” the study’s author, Aaron Karp, said in a press release.
The study was conducted by the Small Arms Survey, a Swiss think tank that provides international data on small arms and armed violence.
The 2018 Briefing Paper considered pistols, revolvers, rifles, carbines, “assault rifles” and sub- and light-machine guns held by civilian, military and law enforcement entities. They found that the vast majority (84.6%) of these firearms are held both lawfully and illicitly by civilians. Law enforcement organizations hold approximately 22.7 million (2.2%) and military forces hold 133 million (13.1%).
“We’ve known for a long time that the majority of firearms in the world are civilian held,” Karp told GunsAmerica. “But what I think is surprising to a lot of people is, unless you’re a gun owner, the firearms that you see tend to be those of the security services, especially law enforcement agencies. The most surprising finding is how relatively few the law enforcement category makes up.”
The United States claims the largest piece of the civvy firearm pie, accounting for 393,300,000 small arms. India is a distant second with 71,100,000 firearms, and China trails behind with 49,700,000 firearms in civilian hands.
The U.S. also leads the world in firearms per 100 residents with 120.5. The next highest concentration of small arms is in Yemen, where there are 52.8 firearms per 100 residents.
Good or Bad?
Whether the study’s findings should be considered positive or negative depends on whom you ask—and where you live. In the United States at least, many gun owners believe that the more firearms in civilians’ hands, the better. In this way, they echo the sentiments of the men who supported the Constitution at the country’s founding.
Noah Webster put it like this:
Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed, as they are in almost every country in Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops.
The Small Arms Survey, on the other hand, has a different take:
The proliferation of small arms and light weapons represents a grave threat to human security. The unchecked spread of these weapons has exacerbated inter- and intra-state conflicts, contributed to human rights violations, undermined political and economic development, destabilized communities, and devastated the lives of millions of people.
Context is key, of course, and weapons in the hands of terrorists are an entirely different matter than an American gun owner’s 10-rifle collection. Karp emphasized these regional differences in his interview with GunsAmerica.
“Everything depends on the nature of the local debate,” he said. “Priorities differ dramatically from country to country, so the way these numbers get used, that’ll change dramatically too, depending on where you are.”
The study’s authors drew their data from four sources: (a) national firearms registration statistics; (b) general population surveys about firearm ownership (available for 56 countries/territories); (c) experts’ estimates of civilian holdings; and, (d) where none of these was available, analogous comparisons based on estimates for comparable countries.