The Way of the Gun

The World's Love Affair With Firearms

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

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