America has a lot of guns. Really — a lot.
A new analysis from the Small Arms Survey, a gun research group based in Geneva, Switzerland, estimated civilian gun ownership by country using a mix of surveys, data from federal registries, expert opinions, and other research methods. It found that the US has by far the highest rates of civilian gun ownership in the world.
According to the data, the US has 120.5 guns per 100 residents in 2017 — meaning more guns than people. Yemen came second to the US with 52.8 guns per 100 residents, or less than half the US figure. The highly developed country closest to the US was Canada at 34.7.
In total, the Small Arms Survey estimated that there were 857 million civilian-held firearms in the world at the end of 2017. The US accounted for around 45 percent of those guns.
Here’s a chart of the top 25 countries in terms of civilian gun ownership:
Researchers found that there has been an increase in worldwide civilian gun ownership compared to the previous 2007 analysis for 2006. Some of that was due to improvements in measurements, which allowed the Small Arms Survey to produce more accurate (but higher) estimates. But some of that, the researchers noted, was a genuine increase in the amount of civilian-owned guns. “It is clear that global civilian holdings are growing, with much, but not all, of the increase attributable to rising ownership in the United States,” the researchers concluded.
The analysis, by its own admission, isn’t perfect. In some cases, for example, people aren’t willing to admit that they own guns — a problem, the Small Arms Survey researchers wrote, that seems to be increasingly true in the US (so the American numbers may actually be an underestimate). But the data is the best we have for a worldwide census of gun ownership.
The extremely high levels of gun ownership pose a public safety problem in the US: Based on other research, more guns lead to more gun deaths. The Small Arms Survey data, then, helps explain why the US leads the developed world in terms of these deaths.
America’s unique gun violence problem
The US has nearly six times the gun homicide rate of Canada, more than seven times that of Sweden, and nearly 16 times that of Germany, according to United Nations data compiled by the Guardian. (These gun deaths are a big reason America has a much higher overall homicide rate, which includes non-gun deaths, than other developed nations.)
Mass shootings actually make up a small fraction of America’s gun deaths, constituting less than 2 percent of such deaths in 2016. But America does see a lot of these horrific events: According to CNN, “The US makes up less than 5% of the world’s population, but holds 31% of global mass shooters.”
So why is the US such an outlier? Researchers widely believe that it’s due to America’s tremendous abundance of and access to guns.
The research, compiled by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center, is clear: After controlling for variables such as socioeconomic factors and other crime, places with more guns have more gun deaths. Researchers have found this to be true not just with homicides but also with suicides (which in recent years accounted for around 60 percent of US gun deaths), domestic violence, and even violence against police.
As a breakthrough analysis by UC Berkeley’s Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins in the 1990s found, it’s not even that the US has more crime than other developed countries. This chart, based on data from Jeffrey Swanson at Duke University, shows that the US is not an outlier when it comes to overall crime:
Instead, the US appears to have more lethal violence — and that’s driven in large part by the prevalence of guns.
”A series of specific comparisons of the death rates from property crime and assault in New York City and London show how enormous differences in death risk can be explained even while general patterns are similar,” Zimring and Hawkins wrote. “A preference for crimes of personal force and the willingness and ability to use guns in robbery make similar levels of property crime 54 times as deadly in New York City as in London.”
This is in many ways intuitive: People of every country get into arguments and fights with friends, family, and peers. But in the US, it’s much more likely that someone will get angry at an argument and be able to pull out a gun and kill someone.
Stronger gun laws could help combat this. A 2016 review of 130 studies in 10 countries, published in Epidemiologic Reviews, found that new legal restrictions on owning and purchasing guns tended to be followed by a drop in gun violence — a strong indicator that restricting access to guns can save lives. A review of the US evidence by RAND also linked some gun control measures, including background checks, to reduced injuries and deaths.
But America maintains some of the weakest gun laws in the developed world, effectively allowing civilians to own firearms at much greater levels than anywhere else. Until the US confronts that issue, it will continue seeing more shootings than the rest of the developed world.
For more on America’s gun problem, read Vox’s explainer.