How many assault weapons are there in America?
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Last Friday, 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed 26 students and teachers at Sandy Hook School with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. * Much of the debate that followed focused on ways to regulate and possibly ban weapons like these. So how many self-loading rifles are there actually in America?
In its 2011 report, The Militarization of the US Civilian Firearms Market, the impartial Center for Violence Policy stated that “The sale of militarized firearms to civilians – that is, weapons in military inventory or weapons based on military design – is subject to the Point has been the civilian design and marketing strategy in the industry since the 1980s. ”And in its 2011 annual report to investors, Smith & Wesson Holding Company noted that there was a domestic, non-military market worth $ 489 million for “modern sport rifles”, a euphemism for self-loading assault rifles. Modern sport rifles are perhaps the fastest growing segment of the domestic long gun industry. From 2007 to 2011, according to the Freedom Group’s latest annual report, domestic long gun sales rose at an average annual rate of 3 percent; Sales of modern sporting weapons rose by 27 percent.
Get more specific, Peters! Well, it’s hard to read imaginary exclamations because the data is incomplete. A November 2012 Congressional Research Service report found that there were approximately 310 million firearms in the United States in 2009: “114 million small arms, 110 million rifles and 86 million shotguns.” However, author William J. Krouse noted that “no data is available on the number of ‘assault weapons’ privately owned or for sale, but a study estimated that 1.5 million assault weapons were privately owned in 1994.”
Good data is hard to come by because gun manufacturers generally don’t break down their production statistics by model. But that 1994 statistic that Krouse cited is not very satisfactory, so let’s see if we can go deeper.
Take the AR-15, the self-loading rifle that Adam Lanza used at Sandy Hook. The AR-15 is the civilian equivalent of the military assault rifle M-16. It is one of the most popular assault rifles on the market today.
In 2009, NRA research coordinator Mark Overstreet reported in a statement made in the Heller v District of Columbia trial contesting Washington’s offensive weapons ban that at least 1,626,525 semi-automatic rifles were manufactured from 1986 to 2007 and not exported from the United States. Overstreet suggested using trends in the NICS background checks to forecast future sales of AR-15 rifles. As of November 30, 2012, the total number of NICS background checks has increased 50.4 percent since the end of 2007. If the number of AR-15 rifles has increased similarly, it means there are at least 2,446,294 AR-15 rifles currently available in the United States.
This “at least” is an important caveat. This data includes firearms made in the US only. In its statement, Overstreet states that, since 1986, “US-made firearms account for approximately three-quarters of all new firearms commercially available in the United States”. So if you increase the above number to account for overseas-made AR-15 style rifles, you get a total of 3,261,725 rifles.
Other caveats: Overstreet derived its numbers by researching sales of companies that only made AR-15 style rifles. He didn’t take into account the sales data of America’s three largest arms manufacturers – Remington, Smith & Wesson, and Sturm-Ruger – because these three produce rifles and he couldn’t break down the data. (Remington is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the Freedom Group.)
That’s weak stuff, Overstreet! Let’s try to guess these numbers for ourselves.
According to Sturm-Ruger’s 2011 annual report, rifle sales that year accounted for $ 83.4 million in sales of $ 324.2 million of total net firearms sales – about 26 percent of sales. Sturm-Ruger produced 1,114,700 firearms in 2011. Assuming that each weapon costs the same – this is certainly wrong, but we’re just making a calculation here – 26 percent of 1,114,700 rifles is roughly 290,000. According to Overstreet, AR-15s made up 14.4 percent of rifles produced in 2007. If these statistics are correct, then Sturm-Ruger produced nearly 42,000 AR-15 rifles in 2011. Go back through the years that number and extrapolate it to the other two manufacturers and you might be looking at 500,000 to 700,000 more AR-15 style rifles. (Again, I have to point out that there may be a large margin of error in these calculations.)
Put it all together, make all the necessary reservations, wear the two, and we conclude that there are about 3,750,000 AR-15 rifles in the United States today. If there are around 310 million firearms in the US today, these self-loading assault rifles make up around 1 percent of the total arsenal. And remember, the AR-15 is just one of many assault weapons on the market. Overstreet estimated that more than 800,000 Ruger Mini-14 rifles have been produced since 1974 – the rifle Anders Behring Breivik used in the summer camp shootings in Oslo last year. There are other types too. This is just the tip of the Gunberg.
Regardless of the exact numbers, America has a hell of a lot of assault weapons, which makes gun control talk difficult. The most effective way for the government to reduce existing arms stocks would be to buy them back from their owners. When Australia imposed strict gun control measures following a mass shooting in 1996, the Australian government repurchased 643,726 new illegal rifles and shotguns at market value. The gun buyback program, which is estimated to have cost $ 400 million, was funded through a temporary 1 percent income tax.
Would such a plan work in America? Extrapolated to Australia’s numbers, a similar buyback in this more gun-heavy country would cost billions. While a tax hike isn’t the only way to raise that much money – the federal government could hold a cake sale or auction some of their lesser-known historical treasures – it’s certainly the most obvious way to do it. We could soon see what voters and politicians hate more: guns or taxes.
Read more about gun control on Slate.
* Correction, December 20, 2012: In this post, the semi-automatic AR-15 was originally and incorrectly referred to as the “assault rifle”. Although the AR-15 could correctly be referred to as an “assault rifle” or “assault rifle”, an “assault rifle” specifically refers to a rifle with fully automatic firing capability. The language in the post has been corrected to reflect this distinction.