How Many Assault Weapons Are There in America? How Much Would It Cost the Government To Buy Them Back?

Crime
A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Dec. 20 2012 4:50 PM

How Many Assault Weapons Are There in America? How Much Would It Cost the Government To Buy Them Back?

Assault rifle
An AR-15 style rifle sits on the counter at a sporting goods store in Tinley Park, Illinois.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

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Last Friday, 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed 26 students and teachers at Sandy Hook School with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.* Much of the ensuing debate has focused on ways to regulate and potentially ban weapons like these. So, how many auto-loading rifles actually exist in America?

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In its 2011 report “The Militarization of the U.S. Civilian Firearms Market,” the non-partisan Violence Policy Center noted that “selling militarized firearms to civilians—i.e., weapons in the military inventory or weapons based on military designs—has been at the point of the industry’s civilian design and marketing strategy since the 1980s.” And in its 2011 annual report to investors, Smith & Wesson Holding Company noted that there was a $489 million domestic, non-military market for “modern sporting rifles,” a euphemism for auto-loading, assault-style rifles. Modern sporting rifles are perhaps the fastest-growing segment of the domestic long gun industry. From 2007 to 2011, according to the Freedom Group’s most recent annual report, domestic consumer long gun sales grew at a compound annual rate of 3 percent; modern sporting rifle sales grew at a 27 percent rate.

Get more specific, Peters! Well, it’s hard, imaginary exclamation-making reader, because the data are incomplete. A November 2012 Congressional Research Service report found that, as of 2009, there were approximately 310 million firearms in the United States: “114 million handguns, 110 million rifles, and 86 million shotguns.” However, author William J. Krouse went on to note that “data are not available on the number of ‘assault weapons’ in private possession or available for sale, but one study estimated that 1.5 million assault weapons were privately owned in 1994.”

Good data are hard to come by because firearms manufacturers generally don’t break down their production statistics by model. But that 1994 statistic that Krouse cited isn’t very satisfying, so let’s see if we can go deeper.

Take the AR-15, the auto-loading rifle that Adam Lanza used at Sandy Hook. The AR-15 is the civilian equivalent of the military M-16 assault rifle. It’s one of the most popular assault-style rifles on the market today.

In 2009, in a declaration made as part of the court case Heller v. District of Columbia, which challenged D.C.’s assault weapons ban, NRA research coordinator Mark Overstreet reported that, from 1986 to 2007, at least 1,626,525 AR-15-style semi-automatic rifles were produced and not exported from the United States. Overstreet suggested that you could use trends in NICS background checks to project future sales of AR-15-style rifles. As of Nov. 30, 2012, the total number of NICS background checks increased by 50.4 percent since the end of 2007. If the number of AR-15 rifles increased similarly, then that means there are at least 2,446,294 AR-15 rifles currently available in the United States.

That “at least” is an important caveat. These data only include firearms manufactured in the United States. In his declaration, Overstreet notes that, since 1986, “U.S.-made firearms have accounted for roughly three-fourths of all new firearms available on the commercial market in the United States.” So if you increase the above number to account for foreign-made, AR-15-style rifles, you get 3,261,725 total rifles.

More caveats: Overstreet derived his numbers by examining the sales figures of companies that only produced AR-15-style rifles. He didn’t include sales data from America’s three largest gunmakers—Remington, Smith & Wesson, and Sturm-Ruger—because these three produce multiple lines of rifles, and he couldn’t break down the data. (Remington is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the Freedom Group.)

That’s weak stuff, Overstreet! Let’s try estimating those figures ourselves.

According to Sturm-Ruger’s 2011 annual report, sales of rifles accounted for $83.4 million in revenue that year out of $324.2 million in total net firearms sales—about 26 percent of revenue. Sturm-Ruger produced 1,114,700 firearms in 2011. Assuming that every gun cost the same amount—this is certainly incorrect, but we’re just making a back-of-the-envelope calculation here—26 percent of 1,114,700 is roughly 290,000 rifles. According to Overstreet, AR-15s accounted for 14.4 percent of rifles produced in 2007. If that statistic remains true, then Sturm-Ruger produced close to 42,000 AR-15-style rifles in 2011. Walk that number back through the years, and extrapolate it out to the other two manufacturers, and you’re possibly looking at anywhere from 500,000 to 700,000 more AR-15-style rifles. (Again, I must caution that there is a potentially huge margin of error in these calculations.)

Add everything together, make all the necessary caveats, carry the two, and we reach the conclusion that there are somewhere around 3,750,000 AR-15-type rifles in the United States today. If there are around 310 million firearms in the USA today, that means these auto-loading assault-style rifles make up around 1 percent of the total arsenal. And keep in mind, the AR-15 is just one of the many assault weapons on the market. Overstreet estimated that more than 800,000 Ruger Mini-14 rifles—the rifle that Anders Behring Breivik used in the Oslo summer camp shootings last year—had been produced since 1974. There are other types, too. This is only the tip of the gunberg.

No matter the exact figures, there are a whole hell of a lot of assault weapons in America, which complicates any talk of gun control. The most effective way for the government to reduce the existing gun stock would be to buy them back from their owners. When Australia imposed strict gun control measures in 1996 in the aftermath of a mass shooting, the Aussie government bought back 643,726 newly illegal rifles and shotguns at market value. The gun buyback program, which cost an estimated $400 million in U.S. dollars, was funded by a temporary 1 percent income tax levy.

Would such a plan fly in America? Extrapolating from Australia's numbers, a similar buyback in this more gun-laden country would cost billions. While a tax increase isn't the only way to raise that much money—the federal government could have a bake sale, or auction off some of its lesser-known historical treasures—it's certainly the most obvious way to do it. We might soon see what voters and politicians hate more: guns or taxes.

*Correction, December 20, 2012: This post originally and incorrectly referred to the AR-15 semi-automatic as an "assault rifle." Though the AR-15 could be correctly referred to as an "assault weapon" or an "assault-style rifle," an "assault rifle" specifically refers to a rifle with fully automatic firing capability. The language in the post has been corrected to reflect this distinction.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

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