Fewer than 1 in 3 Americans report personally owning a gun. Those numbers plummet when you look at people other than white men — 17% of women say they own a gun, and 15% of Hispanics report being gun owners.
Despite gun ownership being a relatively obscure hobby (video games, movies, books, sports and online shopping are all much more popular), guns remain so divisive politically that no meaningful federal gun control legislation has been enacted in the past 25 years. Meanwhile, thousands of people have died in mass shootings and thousands of others have been killed by the quotidian gun violence and gun suicides that besiege America.
Bridging the political divides over guns and gun control could be helped by a deeper understanding of the geographic differences in gun sales, gun crimes and gun deaths. We wanted to look at where in the United States all three of these things were most common and see what connections and correlations can be drawn between those states.
Retail Gun Sales
How many guns are sold in the United States each year? Seems like a pretty straightforward question, but the truth is that nobody really knows for sure. That’s because a patchwork of state and federal laws makes it so that some but not all gun purchases are done through licensed retailers who are required to run background checks on customers, but these dealers don’t report if those customers ended up purchasing a gun and, if so, how many and what kind. There’s also the matter of gun purchases made from sources other than licensed retailers; it’s estimated that about 13% of those who have bought a gun did so through friends or online.
Researchers of gun ownership have created a formula for estimating gun purchases in a given year using background check data reported by the FBI. For the purposes of this study, we’ve used that formula, and you can read the full details in our methodology section at the bottom of this page, but it’s important to note that our analysis excludes Hawaii because the state’s data is limited.
According to our analysis, about 12.6 million guns were purchased through federally licensed gun dealers in 2018. That represents a decline from 2017, and if trends hold through the remainder of 2019, sales will decline even further this year.
Our analysis found that no state broke the 1 million-gun mark in 2018, but one state — Texas — got very close.
California, the largest state, ranks No. 3 by sheer volume, and a major drop-off is seen between fourth-place Pennsylvania and No. 5 Ohio. The District of Columbia, with some of the strictest gun laws in the country, had far and away the lowest number of gun sales, while Texas and Florida combined to account for nearly 15% of all retail gun purchases.
Of course, sheer volume tells only one part of the story. After all, Texas, Florida and California are three of the largest states in the U.S. Understanding how common gun purchases are in any given state means looking at gun sales adjusted for population. By that metric, some of the least-populated states have the highest rates of gun sales.
Four of the states with the 10-highest gun sales rates are in the West, while the South has three and the Midwest two. Only one Northeastern state is among the top 10. Only one state appears in the top 10 of both the absolute list and the population-adjusted list — Tennessee, and four states appear in the bottom of the absolute list and among the top 10 of the population-adjusted list — Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.
Regionally, average gun sales rates are highest in the West by a clear margin, with the average rate of gun sales per 1,000 adults in the West more than 20 points higher than the next-closest region.
Despite a drop in recent years in total gun sales, most states have seen their rate of gun purchases go up over the past decade, with the District of Columbia recording a 600%-plus jump.
Nearly three-quarters of murders today involve a firearm, making a gun by far the most common murder weapon in the United States. Guns also represent the largest share of weapons used in armed robberies (40.6% of all robberies) and account for more than 1 in 4 aggravated assaults.
These figures tend to hold on the state level, though several states have rates of guns used in violent crime that are much higher or much lower than what is seen federally. For instance, Missouri has the highest percentage of guns used in murders, with firearms accounting for more than 86% of all murders in the state; murders in South Dakota, on the other hand, involve guns only 38.1% of the time.
It’s notable that some of the states with the highest population-adjusted rates of gun purchases (Montana, South Dakota and others) are among the states where guns are used the least in violent crimes. While this does not hold true for every state and across every crime category, it’s also not a fair comparison. That’s because guns used in the commission of a crime often are purchased illegally or stolen outright.
In 2017, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) traced more than 400,000 firearms that were used in the commission of a crime and/or to ferret out illegal firearms dealers.
We know from FBI data that the majority of homicide victims are killed with a gun. Guns are also the most common method by which Americans take their own lives, and gun-related injuries killed nearly 40,000 people in 2017, the most recent year for which the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published data.
Where are rates of deaths related to guns highest, including intentional and unintentional deaths as well as law enforcement intervention and other causes? Generally, gun homicide rates are highest in the South, while gun suicide rates are highest in the West.
According to CDC data, gun injuries were the cause of death of about 16,000 people in 2017. This equates to a population- and age-adjusted rate of 4.7 per 100,000 people. Regionally, the only area of the country with a lower gun-homicide rate is the West.
Data for several states was unavailable, but looking at the state-by-state rates, it’s easy to see why the South’s gun homicide rate is so high and the West’s is so low.
Suicide is the most common way that Americans die from gun-related injuries today, with intentional self-harm accounting for nearly 24,000 gun deaths in 2017. The age- and population-adjusted gun suicide rate (6.9) is almost 50% higher than the gun homicide rate. Western states have considerably higher gun suicide rates than other regions; in fact, the West’s gun suicide rate is more than double that of the Northeast.
Montana’s age-adjusted gun suicide rate is by far the highest in the country at 19.4 per 100,000 people, but another Western state, Hawaii, has the lowest gun suicide rate.
Without a doubt, the American relationship to guns is long and complex, seemingly growing more complex by the day. But if progress is ever to be made against gun deaths and injuries, it’s necessary to start by understanding each state’s unique relationship with firearms.
Gun sales: To calculate the number of gun sales per year and the rate of gun sales per 1,000 adults, we used the information contained in the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which reports the number and type of background checks conducted by state for each year since 1998. As mentioned earlier, we used an industry-accepted formula for employing this dataset to estimate the number of gun sales in a given year. That formula calls for combining the number of background checks for handguns and long guns with double the number of multiple background checks (which is a check for at least one handgun and one long gun) and then multiplying that number by 1.05. That then gives us a total estimated number of guns purchased through federally licensed firearms dealers. Those figures were then compared to the number of adults in each state to create a population-adjusted rate since it’s generally illegal to purchase a gun if you’re younger than 18.
Gun crimes: Our data came from the FBI’s annual Crime in the United States report for 2017. We consulted national tables covering weapons used in crimes and similar tables for the states.
Gun deaths: We consulted the CDC’s WONDER database, which lists underlying causes of death and age- and population-adjusted rates for Americans going back to 1999. We created custom tables that included all firearm-related deaths, including intentional and unintentional gun-related deaths. This includes cases of murder, homicides by law enforcement, acts of terrorism and many others.
Fair Use Statement
No doubt, guns and gun control are emotionally charged issues. But we hope that a sober analysis of the data surrounding the gun-related topics we’ve explored can help add to the discourse around guns. If you find this information useful, please feel free to share anything you see here for noncommercial purposes, so long as you provide a link back to the URL of this page.