For years, Rich, a refinery operator from Wilmington, Delaware, was a typical American gun owner. He had only one or two guns, including a handgun he stashed in a bottom drawer in his bedroom. He never took it out and never fired it.
Then, in December 2012, twenty first-graders were murdered in a school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, sparking renewed calls for a ban on the AR-15 military-style rifle the shooter had used.
Worried that a ban was coming, Rich joined the crowd of people at a local gun store and paid roughly $2,000 in cash for an AR-15 — about twice what the gun is worth today.
“I never really wanted one before,” he said, “but at that time there was the fear that if you don’t buy it now, you may never, ever get one.”
One purchase followed another. Three months after the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, Rich owned ten guns. Today, he says, it’s at least 43, and he asked that his last name not be published, for fear that publicizing too many details might attract thieves.
The 39-year-old is now one of America’s firearms super-owners — part of the 3 percent of American adults who collectively own 130 million firearms, half of the nation’s total stock of civilian guns.
The collection in his safe includes three AR-15 lower receivers that will allow each of his three children to customize their own rifles when they come of age, whether an assault weapon ban is passed or not. But Rich said semiautomatic AR-15s had become a little boring to him. He’s much more excited about historic military weapons, and dreams of someday owning a fully automatic weapon. That’s “a grail gun”, he said. “It’s like a whole other arena of firearms ownership.”
Being called a “gun nut” didn’t bother him, Rich said. “I kind of take it as a term of endearment.”
In all, 22 percent of American adults are gun owners, according to a new survey of gun ownership produced by researchers from Harvard and Northeastern universities.
In the new survey, conducted in 2015, about half of all gun owners fall into Rich’s previous demographic: they own a single gun, maybe two. Another third of American gun owners own between three and seven guns.
That top 14 percent of gun owners — a group of 7.7 million people, or 3 percent of American adults — own between about eight and 140 guns each. The average is 17.
These super-owners include collectors with elaborately curated selections of historical firearms, serious hunters, firearms instructors, gunsmiths, people who love tinkering with and customizing their firearms, and Americans worried about feeding or defending their families in the wake of a disaster scenario. But you don’t have to be prepping for the breakdown of civilization to end up with 17 guns. In fact, gun enthusiasts say, it’s surprisingly easy to get to 17 — especially because many Americans inherit multiple guns from their parents and grandparents.
“I’m from Texas, and I just have an assload of guns,” said John Risenhoover, a retired agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms who now lives in Colorado.
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Risenhoover said he owns about thirty guns, including firearms given to him by his father-in-law and grandfather, his self-defense Glocks, a shotgun for hunting ducks, a larger rifle for hunting elk, and a few .22 handguns, “little plinker guns” he used to teach his children how to shoot. (His daughter is more enthusiastic than his son, he noted.)
“The fact that you’d open the closet and have a stack full of guns in this country is really not a big deal,” he said. “I know it sounds weird.”
To him, he said, “it’s like buying shoes.”
Most gun owners are deeply private about what’s in their gun collection — both for fear of government intrusion, and for fear of theft. Several gun owners agreed to talk to The Guardian in detail about their collections only on the condition that their full names or precise locations not be disclosed.
Like Risenhoover, many super-owners described gun collections that had grown organically or even haphazardly, with different guns added for a mishmash of reasons, from practical need to the appreciation of a gun’s historical significance or aesthetic value.
Fred, a 39-year-old truck driver from Ocala, Florida, has about 40 guns — roughly 24 pistols and 14 long guns. He said his firearms collection began to grow after he became a father. He had a “catastrophic knee injury” that he worried would make it hard for him to protect his wife and child, and when he researched his neighborhood, he saw crime was going up.
“I want everyone in my home to be able to defend themselves at a moment’s notice if a violent criminal decides he wants to break down the door,” he said.
Fred said his wife usually carried a gun in her purse or on her person, and his 70-year-old mother, who sings in the church choir, had become such a gun enthusiast that he got her a laser sight for her gun for Christmas.
He keeps guns stored in the living room; in his bedroom, on both his side and his wife’s side of the bed; and in his garage workshop.
“If I’m working in my garage and someone wanders in and he wants rob me, I can’t say, ‘Can you hang on for a second?’”
Fred couldn’t know where he might be “when the worst day in my life arrives,” he said. “If I’m going to believe that I’m prepared, I better be prepared.”
It’s not just a home intruder that worries him, but a broader societal breakdown. He spent five years as a civilian truck driver during the Iraq war making deliveries between military bases in southern Iraq. Today, he sees the fragility of America’s food supply network. If the interstate highways aren’t drivable, or if the electrical grid fails and diesel stations can’t pump their fuel, many local stores would quickly run out of food, he said.
“All of our morals or ethics would be out the window in the fear of the inability to survive as soon we got just a little bit hungry.”
His collection includes five AR-15s for self-protection, and rifles and shotguns for hunting small, medium, and large game, since a rifle that’s good for hunting deer “would just obliterate” a rabbit.
But the benefit of his gun collection isn’t just the security. It’s the joy of being able to constantly tinker with his guns, personalizing and improving them. He bought one rifle for $700 and then spent more than $1,500 customizing it.
“Some of them were just pretty,” he said. “It’s kind of like man jewelry, for lack of anything better to call it.
“In Florida, we cannot open carry unless we’re on personal property or our own business, so these things are never really going to be seen by the general public,” he said. But he likes knowing that there’s something fully custom-made for him, in a custom-designed holster, on his hip. “It kind of makes me giggle. It’s not different than a woman who would have a very very nice tennis bracelet that she wouldn’t dream of wearing out just to go to dinner and catch a movie, but when you open up the jewelry box, it’s there.”
‘I’m just an accumulator’
Compared with gun owners overall, people who own more than eight guns are more likely to be men, less likely to be black or Hispanic, and more likely to own a gun for protection, said Deborah Azrael, a Harvard School of Public Health firearms researcher and the lead author of the new survey of gun ownership.
But American women are firearms super-owners, too. Patti Bonnie, 45, a military veteran and small-business owner in Florida, used to own just a single handgun and a shotgun. Then, in May 2014, she used one of her guns to deter an attempted home invasion — simply by raising the shotgun and moving toward the intruder, she said. Today, she owns an estimated 25 to 30 guns.
“You know, it’s kind of like tattoos,” she said. “You can’t have just one.”
Vicki, a firearms instructor who lives in a western state, said she and her husband own about 20 guns for their personal use, as well as an additional 20 guns — a set of four guns each in five different calibers — that she uses to introduce women to shooting.
“All of our guns have a purpose,” she said. “I’m not about pretty guns.”
Even among friends, gun owners didn’t tend to boast about the number of guns they had, Phil Schreier, a senior curator at the National Rifle Association’s National Firearms Museum, said.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of guns a lot of my friends have owned,” Schreier said.
Gun collections are valuable and are viewed by many people as a financial investment, he said. A well-chosen gun collection might grow in value like a 401k.
Though gun collecting has been around since the dawn of firearms in the 1400s and 1500s — Henry VIII was an early collector, as were Thomas Jefferson and George Washington — in the United States, gun collecting started to take off around the 1930s, as more Americans began to have the kind of disposable income that allowed them to buy for pleasure, not just for immediate need.
“It’s hard to get somebody to identify themselves as a collector,” Schreier said. “Nine out of 10 of them, you’ll say, ‘You’ re a gun collector,’ they’ll go, ‘Nah, I’m just an accumulator.”
The United States does have serious community of firearms collectors. The NRA sponsors an annual gun collectors’ show with more than $10,000 in prizes for the best collections. There are more than 120 gun collectors’ clubs across the United States.
Among the serious gun collectors is Robert, from central Florida, who has a collection of American military firearms that has been featured in several firearms television programs.
The collection of roughly 100 firearms includes weapons used in the revolutionary war through the modern day, including a “near-complete collection of small arms from world war two and Vietnam”.
Among the firearms he owns are several fully automatic weapons, including a Thompson submachine gun, or Tommy gun, and a Model 50 Reising submachine gun. These are prized collectors’ items in the U.S., where ownership of these guns has been strictly regulated, tracked, and limited.
Robert meets friends at a range weekly to fire some of his historic guns. “I have probably have less than 10 that I would not fire,” he said, though ammunition for some of the more exotic guns is expensive enough to make firing them a rare treat. With the Thompson submachine gun, he said, “you can easily go through $100 worth of ammunition in one shooting session”.
For Americans concerned about about a potential government breakdown, though, it’s more commonly available guns that often have the most potential value.
“If I had to pick a number to survive a collapse, I think every person in your family or group should have a personal handgun and a personal carbine. That’s a bare minimum,” said Bryce Towsley, the author of Prepper Guns, who gave away copies of his book at this year’s NRA convention. He added: “You should have a couple of backups,” and recommended guns that use the most common forms of ammunition — perhaps 9mm for handguns and .223 for rifles.
“I know there are preppers out there who are buying guns and ammunition with the anticipation that’s bartering material, and I don’t think they’ll be wrong.”
But Towsley, though he believes in preparing in case of disaster, is optimistic that in the United States government, “grown-ups take over and get us back on track.”
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“I hope it never happens,” he said. “My worst nightmare is having to shoot anybody in defense of myself or my family.”
Towsley lives in a Vermont home overflowing with books, which he also collects avidly, and his own gun collection includes a selection of guns for the hunting trips he takes around the world, as well as for competitive shooting events.
He said he is weary of gun owners being demonized and held up as a threat by Hillary Clinton and other politicians.
“I’m what used to be considered a Joe Average American,” Towsley said. “I’m a little conservative in my politics. I work hard. I pay my taxes, I raised my kids … I try to give back.”
“How many guns is enough? I don’t know — I’ll let you know when I get there.”
This story was produced by The Guardian, as part of a partnership to report on exclusive new gun ownership data.