Gun Ownership in America – Number of Guns Owned by State

Gun Ownership in America – Number of Guns Owned by State

As we pointed out in our article on gun safety in the home, America has a long history of firearms ownership that began well before the USA was founded. The right of the people to keep and bear arms was formalized in the Bill of Rights and has survived multiple challenges in the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). The Court has held that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess firearms for certain purposes, including—at the very least—self-defense in the home. SCOTUS has also determined that the right to bear arms is a fundamental right.

Man shooting handgun at a shooting range

As Federal firearms laws change and states continue to modify their gun regulations, it can be interesting to look at the available data on gun ownership by state and see if there may be any correlation between more restrictive laws and the number of firearms owned when adjusted for population.

However, attempting to obtain accurate information regarding the number of guns owned on a state-by-state basis is extremely problematic. We’ll go into additional detail below, but the fundamental difficulty lies in the fact that most states don’t require firearms registration, though some more restrictive cities and counties do. Reliable nationwide firearms ownership data simply isn’t available, despite many media outlets’ reports claiming their information is accurate. Gun ownership survey data is voluntary and many law-abiding firearms owners feel it’s nobody’s business whether they own firearms or not, so they aren’t likely to volunteer accurate information to a random survey administrator. Since accurate data on the total number of guns owned by state (and/or the ratio of state population to firearms ownership) is not reliably available, we can instead look at the FBI’s data on annual firearm sale background checks to have some idea of the trends.

FBI NICS background checks / estimated gun sales per year by state

When looking for data on the number of firearms owned by state in the US, the data is incomplete and unavailable, as we mentioned above. However, the FBI publishes statistics for annual firearm background checks performed by Federal Firearms Licensed dealers (FFL) via the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) for the transfer or sale of handguns, long guns, and other firearms. These types of firearms are defined by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (for the purposes of our discussion and the FBI’s data) as follows:

  • Handgun: (a) any firearm which has a short stock and is designed to be held and fired by the use of a single hand; and (b) any combination of parts from which a firearm described in paragraph (a) can be assembled.
  • Long Gun: a weapon designed or redesigned, made or remade, and intended to be fired from the shoulder, and designed or redesigned and made or remade to use the energy of the explosive in (a) a fixed metallic cartridge to fire a single projectile through a rifled bore for each single pull of the trigger; or (b) a fixed shotgun shell to fire through a smooth bore either a number of ball shot or a single projectile for each single pull of the trigger.
  • Other: refers to frames, receivers, and other firearms that are neither handguns nor long guns (rifles or shotguns), such as firearms having a pistol grip that expel a shotgun shell, or National Firearms Act firearms, including silencers.
  • Multiple: this refers to NICS background checks requested where there is more than one type of firearm selected on the same form (for example, if a buyer is purchasing both shotguns/Long Guns and Handguns at the same time, or both a Handgun and an Other firearm such as an unassembled, serialized frame)

Video: Most Armed Man in America

For the purposes of the graph below, we have combined the FBI’s data by state for Handgun, Long Gun, Other, and Multiple NICS background checks. Unlike some other reports, we are not tweaking/adjusting the reported numbers for Handguns/Long guns or Multiples but rather reporting the data as the FBI presents it (see discussion below the table for more information). We are also not including Private Sale NICS checks since the vast majority of private sales deal with firearms that are already in the state (versus new firearm sales via FFL dealers), and states like Illinois and California require NICS checks for private sales, but most states don’t.

Next, we used the most recent available complete year’s NICS data compared to the 2020 Census population information by state to determine an estimated number of firearms sold per 10,000 adult residents (according to the Census, an adult is a person 18 years or older). We are including the District of Columbia and omitting Hawaii due to insufficient data available in the report.

Estimated firearms sales (NICS background checks) per state

*For better view of table on mobile, turn phone to landscape view.  

State/District

Estimated annual sales (latest available year figures)

Adult population (18+ per 2020 US Census)

Estimated firearms sold per 10K adult residents

Alabama

457,264

3,918,937

1,180

Alaska

78,415

553,710

1,416

Arizona

391,513

5,542,514

706

Arkansas

181,591

2,312,850

785

California

831,604

30,839,813

270

Colorado

438,214

4,509,270

972

Connecticut

108,465

2,870,331

378

Delaware

49,951

783,048

638

District of Columbia

5,786

575,080

101

Florida

1,146,787

17,252,087

665

Georgia

394,753

8,430,271

468

Idaho

158,079

1,375,651

1,149

Illinois

437,988

9,993,756

438

Indiana

481,683

5,190,928

928

Iowa

75,426

2,450,203

308

Kansas

164,893

2,229,850

739

Kentucky

268,528

3,483,011

771

Louisiana

292,586

3,572,499

819

Maine

105,491

1,110,322

950

Maryland

193,939

4,818,234

403

Massachusetts

122,275

5,666,113

216

Michigan

508,891

7,910,104

643

Minnesota

299,456

4,388,293

682

Mississippi

224,926

2,277,223

988

Missouri

488,347

4,776,212

1,022

Montana

118,588

850,032

1,395

Nebraska

24,943

1,477,012

169

Nevada

107,315

2,412,285

447

New Hampshire

120,892

1,121,308

1,078

New Jersey

165,952

7,282,571

228

New Mexico

151,822

1,638,962

926

New York

351,626

16,080,194

219

North Carolina

212,849

8,153,162

260

North Dakota

60,902

596,006

1,022

Ohio

537,638

9,203,569

584

Oklahoma

307,409

3,009,108

1,022

Oregon

420,113

3,368,618

1,247

Pennsylvania

820,004

10,350,149

792

Rhode Island

27,178

887,779

306

South Carolina

248,753

4,012,845

620

South Dakota

72,853

669,433

1,088

Tennessee

602,450

5,383,544

1,119

Texas

1,285,939

21,859,128

588

Utah

137,216

2,322,847

590

Vermont

44,320

524,750

845

Virginia

554,134

6,741,117

822

Washington

478,669

6,025,529

794

West Virginia

150,282

1,433,179

1,049

Wisconsin

412,802

4,614,781

895

Wyoming

60,967

441,291

1,382

Top ten US states with highest per-capita gun ownership (estimates based on NICS report)

  1. Alaska
  2. Montana
  3. Wyoming
  4. Oregon
  5. Alabama
  6. Idaho
  7. Tennessee
  8. South Dakota
  9. New Hampshire
  10. West Virginia

Some of these states are what you might expect, such as places like Alaska and Montana, with relatively low populations and a reputation for hunting and outdoor activity in wilderness areas where a firearm can provide protection from dangerous predators. Or places like Tennessee, which Bob Lee Swagger called the patron state of shootin’ stuff. Other top-10 states, like Oregon, might surprise you. There’s a reason for that state’s appearance on this list, which we’ll discuss below.

The ten US states with the lowest per-capita gun ownership (estimates based on NICS report)

  1. Connecticut
  2. Iowa
  3. Rhode Island
  4. California
  5. North Carolina
  6. New Jersey
  7. New York
  8. Massachusetts
  9. Nebraska
  10. District of Columbia

Again, these states won’t come as much of a surprise to people familiar with local firearms laws and the impact of state politics. Certainly there is a correlation between states that make it a serious inconvenience for citizens to purchase or even possess a firearm and low per-capita NICS check numbers. We’ll go into greater detail below.

Firearms ownership data in the USA is inherently incomplete and problematic

The above data can be enlightening, but it’s also incomplete at the very minimum. As the FBI says in their own report, It is important to note that the statistics within this chart represent the number of firearm background checks initiated through the NICS. They do not represent the number of firearms sold. Based on varying state laws and purchase scenarios, a one-to-one correlation cannot be made between a firearm background check and a firearm sale.

However, this one-to-one correlation is exactly what 99% of reports and articles about state-by-state gun ownership in the US assume. Some reports attempt to fudge the numbers into a more complete picture of total firearms ownership by arbitrarily assigning 1.1 firearms sales per single NICS check (even though there could be dozens of firearms on the same form, as in an estate sale), or two firearms sales per Multiple NICS check. Both approaches are flawed, and the authors make assumptions that are simply not justified by the data available.

What’s more, the majority of reports using NICS data (including ours above, for parity of comparison) omit the FBI’s Permit Checks column as part of the state’s NICS numbers. This makes sense on one level because in places like Illinois, a state Firearms Ownership Identification card (FOID) is required for the purchase or possession of a firearm in most cases. If a person who is not a licensed firearms dealer wishes to sell or transfer a firearm to another person who is not a licensed dealer, the seller must, in most cases, request to see the buyer’s FOID Card and contact the Department of State Police (DSP) with the buyer’s Firearm Owner’s Identification (FOID) Card number to verify that the transferee’s FOID Card remains valid. So, Illinois’ state laws may artificially inflate the apparent numbers since permit checks are required even for transfers that do not involve an FFL. This results in over 4 million NICS permit checks per year in Illinois, compared to just over 5,000 permit checks in places like Wyoming, even though (per the NICS figures) Illinois has one of the lower per-capita estimated ownership rates, and Wyoming is among the highest (top 3).

Also, the total estimated firearm purchase numbers may be incorrectly low in states where a Permit Check is permitted in place of an NICS Handgun Check. As noted in the FBI’s report, Some states may reflect lower-than-expected numbers for handgun checks based on varying state laws pertaining to handgun permits. Since the permit check is done in place of the NICS check in most of the affected states, the low handgun statistics are often balanced out by a higher number of handgun permit checks.

However, since some states have these Permit Check procedures in place and some don’t, in our view, it would be disingenuous to attempt to combine or fabricate a calculation to account for this discrepancy. We will simply acknowledge that the available data is inherently incomplete, and the information we have provided represents our best efforts at making an intelligent guesstimate based on the FBI’s numbers without fully accounting for all 50 states’ variables.

Large and ostensibly more credible news and data sources are also impacted by the same lack of available information, though they present their numbers as factual. CBS incorrectly reports that the FBI’s published data includes ONLY NFA firearms and items. This kind of misunderstanding of firearms statistics or terminology is extremely common in the media. CBS also admits that Most US firearms go unregistered, so numbers are hard to come by.

Woman shooting gun at range

Additionally, a 2020 Rand report on the number of adults living with at least one firearm supposedly uses statistical data, but if you read their methodology, they began with voluntary firearm ownership survey data, then used a small-area estimation technique to create state-level ownership estimates for each of 51 nationally representative surveys assessing household firearm ownership rates. They then used structural equation modeling to combine these survey-based estimates with administrative data on firearm suicides, hunting licenses, [and] subscriptions to Guns & Ammo magazine.

Not exactly iron-clad data, folks. Correlating firearms ownership with Guns & Ammo magazine subscriptions is akin to correlating yacht ownership numbers with subscriptions to Yachting magazine.

Relying on survey data is already incorrect or at least incomplete because, as we pointed out above, asking firearms owners to volunteer information about their guns to a stranger is not likely to produce anything close to an accurate picture of the real numbers.

Also, before the Gun Control Act of 1968, non-NFA firearms (almost all firearms) could be legally sold by mail order or directly from local retailers without any special paperwork, forms, or background checks. Many millions of firearms were sold before this period, and when properly maintained, they lasted for centuries. They don’t evaporate even when they are banned or restricted.

Additionally, the NICS background check data doesn’t accurately provide a complete picture of the number of firearms in a particular state. There are several situations where even recent, new firearms purchases may not be reflected in a state’s NICS numbers, such as:

  • Purchasing firearms in one state and then moving to another
  • Giving a firearm to a friend or relative (where legal) and that person then moving to another state or locality where firearms registration is not required.
  • Private sales between law-abiding citizens of the same state (no FFL involvement required in most states), where the purchaser may then legally change residence to another state

These are just some examples that demonstrate why the FBI’s NICS background check statistics don’t give a complete picture of the number of firearms owned by residents of any particular state.

Factors influencing gun ownership rates

What impacts gun ownership rates? While firearms manufacturers may take pride in their marketing or their innovative designs creating increased consumer demand, this doesn’t really have a significant impact on overall firearms ownership rates, as we’ll see below.

Glock concentrated heavily on the law enforcement market when they entered the scene in the mid-1980s, and Glock pistols were well-received. As a result, Glock is by far the largest supplier of law enforcement sidearms in the USA, and this has led to the brand being a top choice for normal citizens as well. Similarly, Beretta and SIG have benefited from their association with the US military and have sold millions of the civilian versions of their military sidearms (Beretta’s 92 series adopted in 1985 as the military M9, and recently SIG’s P320 open-market variants of their military M17 and M18 pistols).

However, while a savvy firearms company might sell more firearms to more police agencies or military branches based on marketing or testing, this really doesn’t impact the number of total firearms sold on a state-by-state basis. A greater percentage of the handguns sold in, say, Mississippi might be Glocks due to the general popularity of the brand, but the actual total number of handguns/firearms in Mississippi won’t be significantly impacted.

By far the largest determining factors on the huge upswing in total firearms sales, particularly since 2020, are political factors, threats of nationwide gun bans, social unrest, and economic uncertainty. All of these significantly add to firearm sales. As an example, the turmoil and unrest caused by the pandemic starting in 2020 led to a historical high in estimated new firearms purchases, at over 22.5 million nationwide in that year alone. This represented approximately a 64% increase over the prior year’s estimated sales and the largest annual increase in firearms background checks (estimated sales) in 20 years.

Additionally, there has been a growing trend in the firearms world over the past few years: more women are purchasing a gun for the first time. More women are becoming interested in shooting sports and taking responsibility for their personal defense, and this has impacted firearms ownership rates, particularly within this demographic.

State laws that are more restrictive on NFA items, handguns, or firearms in general also have a significant impact on the number of new firearms purchases. Nearly every state considered to have very restrictive firearms laws has a concomitantly low per-capita number of firearm background checks (and estimated purchases) per year. Obviously, states where the ownership of NFA items such as machine guns, short-barreled rifles, and suppressors has been banned outright report little to no NICS checks for those items, and we are assuming those few that crop up are likely for security forces, members of the military, or law enforcement that are allowed by state law to apply for the federal tax stamps necessary to own these items for their employment or their own use.

In places such as Oregon, where lawmakers have recently enacted much more restrictive regulations than in previous decades, numbers can temporarily increase as citizens scramble to purchase firearms that will be illegal to purchase in the future. This is one reason Oregon’s 2022 per capita numbers (the most recent complete year data available from the FBI) are extremely high and why we expect to see Washington’s numbers shoot up (pardon the pun) in the coming year’s data, as that state has joined the group of states that have enacted severely restricted firearms ownership laws over the past couple of years. However, after the laws go into full effect, we expect the data from these states will exhibit a dramatic decline in the number of NICS requests per capita compared to less-restrictive states.

Whether you own one firearm or many, keep them secure in a Liberty Safe

We support the legal ownership and use of firearms, and there’s no better way to protect your investment than in a quality US-made gun safe or handgun vault from Liberty. Check out our interactive online catalog to see all the types, sizes, colors, and trim levels, or click our dealer locator to find a Liberty showroom near you.


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