America has more guns than any other country — and its residents keep buying them, with sales hitting record highs in 2020. But how many guns leave circulation each year?
That’s at the crux of a query submitted by a reader in Houston, professor Dru Stevenson of South Texas College of Law, who asks:
We hear a lot about how many new guns are sold each year, but how many guns pass out of circulation per year, through loss, government destruction, or breakage? Or, even though guns last indefinitely if maintained perfectly, what is the average statistical life of each gun when it enters circulation?
First, let’s start by looking at the number of guns. While there is no official (read: government) count of how many guns Americans own, the Small Arms Survey, a research project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, provides one of the best available numbers. The organization’s most recent report, released in 2018, estimates that there are upward of 393 million civilian guns in circulation in the U.S. An additional 4.5 million guns are held by the military, and law enforcement agencies have another 1.2 million, for a total of 398.7 million guns.
That accounts for nearly half the world’s firearms, and makes America the most armed country on Earth. The group derives its tally from gun registration figures, law enforcement and manufacturing data, published studies, and academic surveys of gun owners. (The count does not include ghost guns, which have no serial numbers and, because they’re homemade, aren’t reflected in gun industry manufacturing totals.)
Now let’s parse how many guns pass out of circulation per year, either through theft, breakage, loss, or intentional destruction:
Loss and theft
There are a few ways we can calculate the number of guns that are lost or stolen each year, but we must include this significant caveat: When a gun is lost or stolen, it hasn’t necessarily passed out of circulation. Some are returned to their legal owners, while others enter the underground market, says Harvard researcher Deb Azrael, who coauthored a sweeping 2016 survey of American gun owners.
“Some have probably found their way to other countries,” Azrael tells The Trace. “Some of them are probably in the hands of people who won’t tell you about them. There’s some in the hands of bad guys. I mean, they’re not being buried. They’re not being thrown in rivers.”
Lost and stolen guns come from two primary sources: gun stores and civilians. Federally licensed firearm dealers are required to report guns missing from their inventories to local authorities and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives within 48 hours. Federal firearm licensees reported 12,981 guns lost or stolen in U.S. states and territories in 2020, the most recent year such data was available, according to the ATF.
Theft from individual gun owners is not as easy to calculate. There is no federal requirement for gun owners to report their lost or stolen weapons, and only 11 states and the District of Columbia have implemented their own requirements. Therefore, the best estimates come from FBI data and gun owner surveys.
The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, which compiles crime stats submitted by 15,875 of 18,674 U.S. law enforcement agencies around the country, estimates that more than $135 million worth of firearms were reported stolen by gun owners in 2020, the most recent year data is available. If we say each gun was valued at about $450 each (the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates the average price per stolen gun is between $400 and $500), that comes out to about 300,394 guns reported stolen from private owners in 2020.
In a 2017 survey of gun owners, Azrael and her colleagues arrived at a higher figure for guns reported missing each year, around 380,000.
Guns also often go missing from the military and law enforcement, but there is no comprehensive accounting of how many.
Law enforcement agencies recover huge quantities of firearms each year. Although the total number recovered across the country is unknown, a single police department like Chicago can bring in as many as 11,000 annually. These guns are kept as evidence until a case is over, at which point some police departments destroy them, while others sell them off.
Reporting shows that several of the country’s largest police departments — Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and Houston — send their crime guns out to facilities where they’re shredded or melted down. The New York Police Department told us that it destroys about 5,000 handguns and 1,500 rifles and shotguns each year, while the Philadelphia Police Department told us it destroys somewhere between 2,500 and 5,000. The Chicago Police Department told us that in 2019 and 2020 it destroyed a total of 3,100 guns. (We’ve also requested figures for Los Angeles and Houston, and we’ll update the story as soon as we get them.)
In fact, so many guns are destroyed every year that an entire industry has sprung up around it, with companies that cater to police departments and turn melted guns into scrap metal that’s used to construct buildings, farm equipment — and sometimes even art.
More controversially, some police departments sell crime guns back to the public. At the gun lobby’s behest, 12 states have laws on the books encouraging or requiring local police departments to sell crime guns. That’s irked gun reform and victims’ advocates, as well as some police officials, who object to the idea of murder weapons being put back into circulation. Their fears aren’t unfounded: The Kentucky State Police holds confiscated weapons auctions several times a year and uses the proceeds to pay for body armor. In May, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported that nearly three dozen of those guns were later used in crimes.
The federal government’s policy is generally to destroy seized guns, either by melting them down, shredding them, or recycling them. In 2015, CNN Money reported that more than 90,000 guns have been destroyed by the federal government over the previous decade.
There are also gun buybacks, which are typically overseen by local law enforcement and intended as a way to get guns off the street, though they’ve been shown to have a negligible effect on crime. Gun owners are usually offered gift cards or cash for surrendered firearms, no questions asked. The first gun buyback program was held in Baltimore in 1974, and participants were paid $50 per firearm.
There’s no official accounting of guns collected in buybacks across the country each year, but academics have offered some insight. A study published this past spring by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private nonprofit research group, identified 339 gun buyback programs held in 277 cities between 1991 and 2015 that netted a total of more than 16,000 guns. But this is hardly a comprehensive figure, as several police agencies didn’t publicly report totals for each buyback, and the tally only included cities with a population of 50,000 people or more. The study also omitted states like New York, where more than 4,000 firearms have been collected through gun buyback events hosted by the state attorney general’s office over the last seven years.
If gunmakers ceased production tomorrow, many of the country’s hundreds of million guns could remain in circulation for at least a century or more, according to Bruce Seiler, a former Secret Service agent and cofounder of the nonprofit National Center for Unwanted Firearms, which destroys hundreds of guns a year that are donated by private owners. “Guns last a long time,” he says.
Indeed, guns from the Revolutionary and Civil Wars are still found at auctions and on the Internet. Some portion of the civilian stock includes weapons that are never actually fired. These include heirlooms that have sentimental value, antiques, and collectibles that owners hang onto in the hope that they’ll appreciate in value.
While Seiler’s company often destroys firearms that function properly, sometimes donors offload broken weapons that aren’t worth it to fix. Unfortunately, there’s no reliable estimate on how many weapons break on their own and leave circulation.
It’s very difficult to quantify exactly how many guns pass out of circulation each year, because the life cycle of a gun is only trackable to a certain point. The data that does exist, particularly at the local and state level, is too incomplete to get an accurate accounting. If we were to hazard a guess, it would be less than 500,000 a year, which isn’t enough to begin to make a dent in the country’s civilian gun stock.