Why so many guns? For one thing, it's a business

The number of guns owned by Americans is rising, even though the percentage of people who own guns is falling. Turning gun owners into gun collectors is part of the business.

At one level, companies that make guns are like the companies that make other durable goods. 

“They have a responsibility to their shareholders and to their owners to maximize profit, and they can’t do that unless they maximize sales,” says Garen Wintemute, the Susan P. Baker-Stephen P. Teret Chair in Violence Prevention at UC Davis.

But according to Wintemute, gun companies have to deal with something that carmakers or appliance companies, for example, don’t. “The challenge that the durability of firearms poses to the manufacturer is it makes it harder for them to maintain sales.”

They need to get customers to buy more firearms.

According to Robert Spitzer, Distinguished Service Professor at SUNY-Cortland, most firearms have “a long shelf life.”

“You can buy a gun, put it in your dresser drawer, or stick it in a closet, and it can sit there for decades and be perfectly functional when you pull it out many, many years later.”

And that, it seems, is what a lot of gun owners do. 

Larry Hyatt owns the Hyatt Gun Shop, in Charlotte, N.C. It’s one of the largest gun specialty stores in the U.S. 

“They buy multiple guns,” Hyatt says. “They might have 15 or 20 guns. They might only shoot one or two of them. The rest of them, they just got put away.”

It’s very important to the gun industry to cultivate collectors and enthusiasts who will buy multiple firearms.

“The fact that people buy more than one gun is what keeps this business going,” Hyatt says, noting different customers like different things. Some want ornate rifles.  Others want cowboy guns.

“People that are coming out of the military service today, they like assault-type guns because that’s what they were trained with in the service,” he says. “That’s what they like.”

Hyatt says a lot of factors drive gun sales, including history, movies, and TV. And manufacturers target consumers.

“Twenty-five years ago, if you’d told me that they would have pink guns on the market, and people would buy them, I would have lost that bet,” he says.

Hyatt says manufacturers do a good job coming up with new products, with new features, in new colors. And that’s one reason, Wintemute says, there are so many guns in the U.S.

"We have less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but we control more than 40 percent of the firearms that are in civilian hands.”

It’s impossible to know exactly how many guns there are. We don’t have a federal registry. Phil Cook, a public policy professor at Duke University, says researchers rely on surveys, some information from manufacturers, and some from the FBI.

“In just six years, we’ve seen a doubling of the total number of background checks,” Cook says. In 2012, federally licensed dealers conducted 19 million background checks.

Keep in mind, there’s no direct link between the number of background checks and the number of guns sold. Some checks result in a denial. Some people buy several guns.

But Spitzer, of SUNY-Cortland, says this is what’s surprising: “The percentage of Americans who own guns -- one or more guns -- has been declining for about the last 50 years or so.”

And today, the number of households with guns is one in three. Down from one in two in the 1960s.


 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Duke University professor Phil Cook.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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