An Israeli woman checks out a new pistol at a gun shop in Tel Aviv October 20, 2015.
Baz Ratner / Reuters

In 2007, the Swiss-based Small Arms Survey undertook a task that no one had undertaken or attempted since. It estimated the number of guns in the world that were in private hands: about three-quarters of the 875 million in total. Of course, the number of guns owned by civilians varies from nation to nation. In some places, like Yemen, every other person has a gun. In others, like Ghana and South Korea, there is less than one gun for every 100 people. But overall, the survey shows that the number of civilian-owned guns in the world far outweighs those owned by armies or police forces: India has about 46 million privately held firearms, China has 40 million, and Germany 25 million.

The United States takes the prize for gun ownership, with almost one gun per person. In fact, if China, Germany, and India are taken out of the equation, the United States, with as many as 270 million guns in the hands of civilians, has more privately owned firearms than the rest of the world put together. No wonder gun advocates there call themselves an army.

Of course, one must be a little wary about these figures. Millions of small arms worldwide are never registered with the authorities. Many registered guns have long since rusted away into uselessness, or have been stolen. National firearm ownership tallies are complicated by a patchwork of different rules, as well. For instance, deactivated guns used as film props can, in some parts of the European Union, be registered as working firearms if they are exported to another country. To make matters more confusing, some countries, such as the United Kingdom, include certain kinds of air pistols in their firearm counts.

Whatever the true number of privately held guns, however, one thing is clear. The vast majority of civilian-owned guns are kept with absolutely no intention of inflicting violence against another person, or their owners. Sports shooting and hunting are the main drivers for private gun ownership in developed economies, except in the United States, where self-protection is the most common reason reported. And it is easy to see why. Guns, when used in the right way and in the right place, can bring great satisfaction and pleasure. When fired in a controlled, safe manner that does not threaten anyone, guns can be fun.

Of course, these Faustian caveats tend to conjure up a diabolical debate. People argue endlessly about what constitutes control, what safe practices are, and who is threatened by guns. Nearly all gun owners I have met during my time as a journalist—particularly those in the United States who argue for less restrictive gun laws—believe that they are in control of their firearms, and that they are safe stewards of their weapons. Gun owners also argue that the right to own firearms is under threat. That it could be taken away by a despotic government at a moment’s notice, leaving gun owners with no recourse against a government that has overstepped its bounds. And so, they argue, they need a gun to protect their liberty in the face of potential tyranny.

The pursuit of pleasure is the essential reason that most gun owners pick up a pistol, however. They collect guns as they would any other valuable objects; they gather to shoot without drawing blood, socially or competitively, to let rip for the sheer hedonistic hell of it. In order to understand the global struggle over gun regulations, we must see the entire spectrum of how guns are used. To leave out the majority of gun owners who seek pleasure without risking harm to others is to omit a large, often overlooked subsection of the population.

A target hit several times is seen through a piece of cardboard also peppered with bullet holes at the DVC Indoor Shooting Centre in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia March 22, 2013.
A target hit several times is seen through a piece of cardboard also peppered with bullet holes at the DVC Indoor Shooting Centre in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia March 22, 2013.
Andy Clark / Reuters

TAKING AIM

I was once part of a group that filmed an adventure series across Asia, and Cambodia was our first destination. Our presenter, a journalist with FHM magazine, had already eaten deep-fried spiders, had his back “cupped” by a traditional healer, and taken part in a buffalo race for the project. Now, his challenge was to beat Miss Cambodia in a shooting competition. So we’d come to the headquarters of the 70th Brigade of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, the only firing range in the country open to the paying public. 

Miss Cambodia appeared in a wedding dress and was preparing to shoot. The AK-47 was handed to her and was ready to fire. She raised the stock to her face and, leaning forward, pulled the trigger. A sharp crack sounded, and at the end of the range, a bullet left its mark on the edge of the target, which was the outlined figure of a charging warrior. The warrior looked wounded, possibly lethally. Miss Cambodia had made one thing clear: never mess with a beauty queen packing a semiautomatic weapon.

The other visitors at the gun range were tourists from Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Visiting the firing range had become a popular add-on stop after a trip the Khmer Rouge–era S-21 prison. Earlier that morning, these travelers had dragged themselves around Pol Pot’s former interrogation center—an innocuous-looking three-story former school with balconied walkways and bending palm trees that seemed too beautiful to have functioned as a prison in its past life. The tourists had stared at faded photographs of people killed during the Cambodian genocide, and had taken pictures of the ugly wire frames that prisoners used for beds. 

The tourists saw the Choeung Ek killing fields on the capital’s outskirts. Fifty years earlier, Cambodia’s teachers, doctors, journalists, and members of the intellectual elite had been taken by the thousands to the mud flats, where they were systematically executed. Guides told the Westerners that the majority of victims had been killed with an AK-47 round shot into the back of their head. 

Tourists visit the former notorious Khmer Rouge Tuol Sleng prison that is now the Genocide Museum, in Phnom Penh August 5, 2014.
Tourists visit the former notorious Khmer Rouge Tuol Sleng prison that is now the Genocide Museum, in Phnom Penh August 5, 2014.
Damir Sagolj / Reuters
After reliving such horrors (and without a hint of irony), the tourists arrived at the range to shoot guns. Firing thirty rounds from a Kalashnikov cost $40. For $70, they could blast away on an M-60, the U.S. military’s machine gun of choice during the Vietnam War. Other packages catered to even more extreme tastes. Lay down $350, and soldiers would take tourists roughly 19 miles east to a field in the Kampong Speu province. There, they would hoist a B-40 rocket-propelled grenade launcher onto one’s shoulder and give him or her the thumbs up to open fire on a target. For another $200, they’d let tourists fire it at a live cow.

Our group was only interested in shooting guns, however, so we stayed back at the range, laid down our dollar bills, and lined up to take aim. And in the heat of the day, Miss Cambodia lifted her rifle again. Behind her was the Cambodian Airborne Unit insignia, staring down at her as she fired round after round. “Mess with the best, die like the rest,” its slogan read. The gun instructor, a paratrooper, told her to lean into the gun in order to anticipate its recoil. But she had shot a gun before. As the cameras rolled, her bullets caused tiny eruptions in the sun-red earth down the range, and she smiled. 

But then I began to travel to war zones. I saw the devastation guns wrought firsthand, and things changed.
We weren’t filming this beauty queen unloading a semiautomatic clip into a target for entertainment value alone. Observing her allowed us to evoke the terrible nature of civil war. It’s hard to film a mountain of skulls and make it engaging, so you do what you must in order to get people to watch.  

HOLIDAY IN CAMBODIA  

Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge—often using Chinese- and Russian-supplied rifles—killed nearly two million of their own countrymen. Their fighters, wrapped in checkered kramas (traditional Cambodian scarves) and fueled by communist ideology, had spread from the jungles to the rice fields and then into the suburbs of the boulevard-lined cities, until the entire country had fallen under their control. 

The Khmer Rouge was not just interested in power. Its leaders wanted one of the things that that can make men with guns especially lethal—to make a new society. So they began to dismantle and destroy what had existed before in the name of a warped agrarian ideal.

Guns had flourished during this search for utopia. And yet, when the Khmer Rouge finally collapsed in 1979, the new government began to realize a hard truth: that such proliferation of weapons was to fuel criminal violence, not revolution. They began to address the issue slowly, but owning a high-velocity weapon wasn’t made illegal until 1998. By then, every third household in Cambodia was armed. 

In an effort to address the problem, they introduced tougher gun laws and a massive buyback scheme began in 1999. Within 16 years, the government destroyed more than 180,000 weapons. According to The Phnom Penh Post, the use of guns in violent crimes declined from 80 percent in 1994 to 30 percent a decade later. Today, visiting a gun range is as much a rite of passage on a backpacker’s list of things to do in Cambodia as anything else in the country. 

That’s why we’d had come to the firing range. Going shooting with Miss Cambodia showed just how quickly guns—even ones used in genocide—can be turned into toys. The trip had shown us how quickly a gun can shift from being something feared to something desired.  

Andrew Josequera, 11, prepares to shoot at a target at the Los Angeles gun club in Los Angeles, January 23, 2013.
Lucy Nicholson / Reuters
And still, I understood the tourists’ desire. There was a time when I deeply enjoyed using guns for the sheer pleasure they brought. I used to be the head of a small gun club, a ramshackle affair of a wooden hut and a few tons of sand, where, on bucolic summer days, we’d fire rimfire .22 rounds. As a teenager I learned how to shoot pistols and target rifles; I was trained to strip down a general-purpose machine gun in seconds. For a brief part of my youth, I even bought print magazines like Guns & Ammo.

But then I began to travel to war zones. I saw the devastation guns wrought firsthand, and things changed. I walked upon the bleached bones of children who had died with a bullet hole in the back of their heads. I witnessed the bloated, thick bodies of militants being laid out on fire-touched earth after a machine gun had unleashed its own little hell. And, over time, little by little, guns lost their allure for me. The knowledge of what they can actually do to a man leached away their pleasure. 

Guns got complicated. Gradually, I turned from enjoying what guns brought to me personally to looking at the harm they wrought upon others on a much larger scale. I began to see not the pursuit of pleasure, but the pursuit of profit in gun shows and arms markets around the world. And I began to see, in the outlined images of warriors on paper targets, the memories of real flesh and real blood. My view of the virtues of owning a gun began to be eroded by hard truths. Repeated reports show that owning a gun in the home increases the risk of suicide. The argument for gun ownership as a form of self-protection is challenged by the ugly reality that guns are all too often implicated in domestic violence incidents and accidental shootings. The more I read, the more I concluded that owning a gun increased the risk of being shot to death by one’s own weapon.

“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is a popular slogan among gun rights advocates. There is no doubt that people who own guns with the intent to cause harm should be punished, but when it comes to the many civilian gun owners who don’t, we have reached an international impasse. Do the risks of having guns in private homes and ranges—the potential for accidental harm, or for a legally purchased gun to fall into the wrong hands—justify the policing of people’s private pleasures? This ethical equation is central to the global battle over gun regulation, and yet the public debate is primarily driven by those at the extreme ends of the gun control spectrum.

If we hope to ever reach a resolution, we must abandon the polemical and shift our focus toward the practical; we must engage with the center demographic to work toward a compromise that protects our safety even as it acknowledges our rights as individuals.

  • IAIN OVERTON is Director of Policy and Investigations for Charity Action on Armed Violence. His latest book is The Way of the Gun (HarperCollins, 2016), from which this article is adapted.
  • More By Iain Overton