Editor’s note: This story, originally published in March 2023, was updated on December 8, 2023, to reflect the most recent data available from the U.S International Trade Commission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which puts the number of guns produced for the U.S. market since 1899 at 494 million. The Trace is tracking developments and will continue to update this story as new information emerges.

We’ve heard for years that there are more guns in the U.S. than people, but a precise accounting remains elusive. Federal legislation that would track gun sales or establish a nationwide handgun registry has been proposed — to much resistance from the gun lobby. In lieu of exact figures, we have examined gun owner surveys, industry disclosures, and federal gun background check figures, which provide insights, but are not comprehensive.

Pinpointing the number of guns in circulation could help us better understand the relationship between gun sales and gun violence. Researchers have consistently found that more guns means more gun deaths, but gun rights advocates continue to argue the opposite. Meanwhile, annual gun deaths have soared to unprecedented levels

In this tally, The Trace has tried to quantify America’s civilian gun stock, explaining through the process why it’s so complicated to do so — and how the numbers we have correlate with gun deaths.

How many guns have been produced for the U.S. market

There is currently no requirement that federally licensed dealers report sales volume to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, so we don’t have complete data on individual purchases. But we do know how many guns are shipped to dealers from licensed manufacturers every year, because gunmakers are required to report those figures to the ATF. The agency releases gun production numbers, along with import and export figures, in its Annual Firearms Manufacturing and Exportation Report. “Production” is defined by the ATF as “firearms … manufactured and disposed of in commerce” — or sold — “during the calendar year.”

For our analysis, we combed through decades of historical ATF data, and supplemented import totals with U.S. International Trade Commission import reports. We found that more than 494 million firearms have been produced for the U.S. market since 1899, and the pace of that production has been increasing. This figure includes imports from foreign gunmakers, but excludes exports by domestic gunmakers. 

This data includes guns that are purchased by law enforcement, but not the military. The Small Arms Survey, a Switzerland-based outfit that publishes periodic reports on the global gun stock, estimated in 2018 that local, state, and federal police forces in the United States had just over 1 million firearms.

Why are exports excluded?

This story is focused on the guns that are in circulation in the U.S., so we’re not including guns that have been shipped to other countries. But the U.S. is the top exporter of small arms, with more than 25.8 million weapons shipped abroad since 1899, according to the ATF data.

The biggest exporters of guns, by the ATF’s count, are also among the top domestic sellers: Sig Sauer; Sturm, Ruger & Company; and Smith & Wesson.

Do production figures equal the number of guns in circulation?

No. Production figures don’t account for how many firearms fall out of circulation each year. Guns are durable, and if maintained properly they can last a century or more. But they do rust and break. They’re also confiscated by police and destroyed, and illegally exported to other countries, said Philip Cook, a professor emeritus of public policy at Duke University, who first sought to quantify the nation’s guns in the early 1990s by surveying gun owners.

As he compiled his gun census, Cook recognized the need to deduct a certain number from any estimate of civilian-owned guns to account for those that were broken, confiscated, or illegally exported. He said he struggled with what this attrition rate should be. “We know it’s not zero, and it would be unlikely to be as high as 5 percent,” he said. “I used 1 percent as a conservative ‘what-if’ calculation.” Cook found that the resulting total aligned with his survey respondents’ reports of how many guns they owned. 

The ATF provides the cumulative number of firearms manufactured, imported, and exported from 1899 through 1945, but no annual breakdowns. If you apply Cook’s attrition rate annually starting in 1946, you get a loss of more than 116 million guns, leaving about 377 million guns in circulation.

Some researchers think Cook’s attrition rate could use an update. “Whether that 1 percent figure makes sense, and whether it should be reduced in the last decade or so when gun sales have surged, is an open question,” said Deborah Azrael, a public health researcher at Harvard who conducted her own landmark survey of gun owners in 2016.

The 1 percent attrition could potentially overestimate the number of guns falling out of circulation, particularly in periods of heightened production, like 2020 and 2021. This is because the calculation applies a flat 1 percent reduction each year to the total number of firearms, without attempting to take into account the actual age of the firearms in circulation. In other words, if the total number of firearms increases, so does the number of guns that fall out of circulation.

In addition, not every gun manufacturer reports their production numbers to the ATF every year, even though it is required by law. On average, 30 percent of active licensed gunmakers neglected to file manufacturing reports between 2016 and 2020, according to an ATF report published in May 2022. That sounds like a lot, but the agency says most nonreporters are smaller manufacturers whose output accounts for “a relatively small percentage of overall production.” 

In a 2013 working paper for the Small Arms Survey, economist Jurgen Brauer estimated that about 320,000 newly produced weapons were not reported to the ATF between 2001 and 2010. That’s less than 1 percent of the official total.

Finally, the ATF data does not account for 3D-printed guns and most guns assembled from kits, because until recently, DIY firearms were not required to be reported to the agency. A rule that took effect in 2022 requires privately made firearms to be imprinted with serial numbers, which may result in more accurate information about their manufacture going forward.

How does the ATF’s figure compare to other available estimates?

Many news organizations and researchers use FBI background check figures as a proxy for the number of guns that enter into circulation each month. But for a variety of reasons, background checks do not correspond one-to-one with sales. Some background checks are for concealed carry permit applications and renewals, people can buy multiple weapons with a single background check, and at least one state — Kentucky — runs background checks on permit holders once a month. We compared FBI background check figures over the last 25 years to the ATF’s gun manufacturing and import figures over the same period, and background checks outnumbered gun production 2 to 1.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry’s trade group, publishes firearm production reports that draw on a host of sources, including the ATF, the U.S. International Trade Commission, and the Congressional Research Service. In 2020, the group reported that the estimated number of firearms in civilian possession was 433.9 million. That figure does not appear to account for attrition.

How has gun production changed over time?

Gunmakers have produced more firearms for the U.S. market in recent years than ever before.

The ATF data shows that between 2015 and 2019, gunmakers produced an average of more than 13 million guns a year for the U.S. market, a figure that includes both domestic manufacturing and imports. In 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic spurred record demand for firearms, 17 million guns hit the domestic market.

The ATF hasn’t published import figures since 2020. But according to the U.S. International Trade Commission, which advises lawmakers on trade and tariffs, more than 9.1 million guns were imported in 2021 — up 34 percent over the previous year. By combining imports with domestic production and subtracting the number of guns exported, it indicates that 2021 saw a record 22.5 million guns hit the U.S. market. That is a 137 percent increase over 2011, and a whopping 446 percent increase over 2001. 

ATF data combined with the USITC’s figures show that the number of guns produced for the U.S. market declined to 19.7 million in 2022, down 12.6 percent from 2021. It’s possible that these totals could be updated as more data becomes available. 

Annual manufacturing and import figures have historically been much lower. Fifteen years ago, around 7 million guns were manufactured and imported in a single year. That ramped up considerably after the election of Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president. Total domestic firearm production and imports jumped 30 percent between 2008 and 2009, and never returned to pre-2008 levels. From 2009 to 2021, combined production and imports increased 151 percent.

Other surges in manufacturing and imports occurred between 2011 and 2012,  when Obama ran for and won a second term (38 percent), and 2015 and 2016, when Donald Trump declared his presidential candidacy and won the election (26 percent). The biggest year-over-year jump on record happened between 2019 and 2020, when a pandemic-related surge in gun sales resulted in an unprecedented 40 million guns flying off the shelves (63 percent). (Pandemic demand also likely explains the biggest year-over-year jump in imported firearms: 71 percent between 2019 and 2020.) Conversely, demand for guns appears to have waned between 2016, the year of Trump’s election, and 2017, the year he took office (-24 percent).

Even accounting for population growth, firearms manufacturing and imports have increased significantly over time. In 1960, some 1,130 firearms were produced for the U.S. market for every 100,000 people in the U.S. that year. In 2000, that number was 1,676, according to our analysis. By 2021, the figure had skyrocketed to 6,785 guns per 100,000 people.

Has the type of guns being produced changed?

The majority of guns produced for the American market are handguns, but that wasn’t always the case: Until the early 1990s, rifles and shotguns routinely outnumbered pistols and revolvers. Handguns accounted for 57 percent of firearm production in 2021, with nearly 13 million injected into the market, while long guns accounted for just 37 percent, with more than 8 million produced.

The shift toward handguns tracks with a cultural shift in American gun ownership, with fewer people buying guns for recreation and hunting and more buying guns for self-defense. 

The last decade has also seen a rise in the manufacturing of so-called miscellaneous firearms, which are gun parts, like frames and receivers, that are “sold before being assembled with other components” to make a finished gun, according to the ATF. Miscellaneous firearms accounted for 5.7 percent of domestic production in 2021 and 11 percent in 2022.

What’s the relationship between gun production and gun deaths?

When we charted gun manufacturing and imports alongside annual gun deaths going back to 1968, we found that when gunmakers ramped up production, gun deaths rose. 

Researchers caution that this does not necessarily mean that an increase in gun manufacturing causes an increase in gun deaths. In many instances, however, gun production and gun deaths peaked in the same year.

The year 1974 had both the highest gun death rate and saw more guns manufactured than any previous year on record. Production fell slightly over the next decade, and so did the per capita gun death rate. In 1993, a new all-time record for production and imports coincided with another peak in the gun death rate. Over the next five years, production and imports fell 41 percent, and the gun death rate declined 27 percent — from 15 per 100,000 in 1993 to 11 per 100,000 in 1998.

Between 2008 and 2013, as production and imports surged 132 percent, the gun death rate remained essentially unchanged, at around 10 deaths per 100,000. But guns and gun deaths began rising in tandem again a few years ago. In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, gun companies produced and imported more guns than ever before, and there were more gun deaths than ever before — more than 45,000. In 2021, gun production reached a new all-time high of 22.5 million, and gun deaths rose to a new record of 48,830.

When we looked into the relationship between gun deaths and gun production in more detail, we found that the relationship between gun production — particularly handgun production — and suicides is stronger than gun deaths overall. But again, correlation is not causation, veteran researchers said.

David Hemenway, a Harvard researcher who has repeatedly found that easily accessible guns means more gun deaths, said household gun ownership levels might be more important than the size of the civilian gun stock. “There have been periods when the gun stock has increased, but household gun ownership levels have been stable or falling,” he said, citing previous surveys of gun owners. He also said that the number of guns in a single household might correlate more strongly with gun deaths than gun production. “Guns last a long time,” Hemenway said. “Most guns used in killings are not brand new guns.” 

That may have changed since the pandemic, however. In 2020, police recovered almost twice as many guns with a short “time-to-crime” — in this case, recovered within a year of their purchase — than in 2019, according to the ATF.

Daniel Semenza, a criminologist at Rutgers University–Camden who has also studied the relationship between gun availability and fatalities, said he was struck by how gun production and gun deaths appear to rise and fall together at various points in the last half-century. “It’s not 100 percent correlation,” he said, “but it’s pretty close.” The findings confirm what researchers have observed for years: “When there are more guns, it just increases risk,” in the form of accidental shootings, suicides, and arguments turning deadly, Semenza said.

The corresponding rise in gun production and deaths raises questions about how much responsibility the gun industry has for the country’s gun violence epidemic. That issue is being debated in court, where gun rights groups are challenging a recent New York law that allows gun manufacturers and sellers to be sued for endangering public safety. Three other states have enacted similar laws, which attempt to circumvent a 2005 federal law that shields gun companies from most lawsuits arising from the criminal misuse of their products. The issue may end up before the Supreme Court.

How many guns do people near me own?

ATF production figures aren’t broken down at the state or local level. So while we know how many people are shot in our neighborhoods, we don’t know how many of our neighbors have guns. Once a gun is shipped to a dealer, that’s where the paper trail ends. 

“It would be really useful to know how many millions of guns are in stores,” said Azrael, the Harvard researcher. The way the ATF defines gun production assumes that every gun shipped to a dealer is sold. While surges in demand and production, particularly during the pandemic, may give the impression that gun stores are selling out, that’s not necessarily the case, Azrael said.

The ATF does have state-by-state breakdowns of the number of machine guns, short-barreled rifles and shotguns, and silencers in civilian hands. That’s because they’re regulated by the National Firearms Act, and transfers must be approved by the federal government. But the NFA excludes the vast majority of guns sold in the U.S.

Not having gun ownership data at the state level impedes gun violence research, Andrew Morral, a senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation, recently told FiveThirtyEight. Without localized data, researchers can’t accurately assess the impact gun ownership has on firearm mortality.

A more precise accounting of the civilian gun stock is “really important,” Semenza said, adding that he would like to see researchers and journalists use an exact figure in lieu of ranges and estimates, even if there are caveats with the data. He said one reason they don’t is because historical production figures aren’t easy to find.

“This is in a bunch of different documents in really cumbersome language,” he said. “And the farther back you go, the harder that data is to wrangle.” Semenza also pointed to “this persistent myth” that the number of guns in America is an unknowable figure. “It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.”