What Percentage of Guns in the U.S. Are Semiautomatics?
Guns are probably one of the most misunderstood subjects in America. With all the hubbub and misinformation out there surrounding guns, we thought we’d take some time to delve a little further into the subject.
Misinformation leads to fear that's based on incomplete knowledge. That fear leads to legislation aimed at solving a problem that often doesn't even exist which can, in turn, hurt law-abiding gun owners.
It might seem like a never-ending ordeal, but as gun owners, it’s up to us to properly educate the population at large so we don’t lose our ability to own certain kinds of guns. We can’t blame people for fearing what they don’t know, but we can certainly blame ourselves for not reaching out to make an attempt at educating them.
This point is especially important to consider because, in all likelihood, the reason people are asking what percentage of guns are semiautomatic is because they believe semiautomatics are more dangerous firearms. Sure, there are gun owners curious about the numbers of different types of guns in the U.S., this author included. But by and large, the reason people make this distinction is out of ignorance — ignorance in the literal sense, meaning they just don’t know. This is why it’s on us to educate them.
What Is Semiautomatic?
Since the term itself is where a lot of the misconceptions come from, we need to start by precisely defining exactly what semiautomatic means when it comes to a firearm.
In simplest terms, “semiautomatic” refers to the way the gun operates. It's a reference to the mechanical process that plays out within the gun once a round is fired. In short, it's what the gun does after you pull the trigger. Another way of describing it would be to say that it is self-loading. In a semiautomatic firearm, whether pistol or rifle, the operation of the gun is such that it ejects the empty shell casing of the round you just fired and replaces it with an unfired one. That’s it.
In all honesty, it doesn’t even help you shoot faster. Speed in shooting is actually more dependent on how fast you can accurately aim and pull the trigger than the operation of the gun. In fact, professional shooter Jerry Miculek has fired five shots from a revolver in 0.57 seconds.
What Kinds of Guns Are Semiautomatic?
Actually, all of them are — or at least they all can be. Not every single gun manufactured is semiautomatic, but there are semiautomatic rifles, handguns and shotguns. Since semiautomatic only refers to how the gun operates, you can have just about any kind of gun in semiauto.
Caliber doesn’t matter either. You can get a semiauto in 5.56, 7.62, 9mm or even 12 gauge. Unfortunately, this tends to contribute to the fear, because it makes people unsure of which guns are which. With the possibility of every gun being a semiauto, it creates an air of uncertainty for those unfamiliar with firearms.
You’ve probably witnessed this yourself. Perhaps you’re showing, or even talking about, a gun and mention that it's a semiautomatic. You might get asked “Why do you need a semiautomatic?” If that hasn’t happened to you yet, it will. Because of all the misinformation, people just assume that since your version of the gun is a semiauto, it’s the deadlier version. Obviously, this couldn’t be further from the truth; it’s just the style of operation for many types of guns.
So, What Percentage of Guns Are Semiautomatic?
That really depends on who you ask. The NRA, for example, puts the figure at around 20% of all firearms in the U.S. Various other think tanks and organizations, both pro- and anti-gun, all have their own estimates.
But why are they all estimates? Well, that’s the tricky part. The main reason is that there just isn’t any data collected that specifies what exactly is sold. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives obviously does keep track of various aspects of firearms manufacturing, but they don’t precisely track based on the type of operation.
The reality is that firearm manufacturing is tracked based on much broader terms than the style of operation for specific guns. The ATF mostly just keeps track of whether the guns produced were revolvers, pistols, shotguns or rifles. The ATF does make a distinction between pistols and revolvers, but as we’ve discussed, handguns aren’t the only semiautomatics. There are also semiautomatic rifles and shotguns, but the ATF doesn’t differentiate between them when it comes to semiauto versus other operations.
Given that information, there just isn’t a way to know for sure. However, we can look at the data and come up with a relatively secure educated guess. So let’s do some extrapolating, shall we?
Pistols vs. Revolvers
Since the ATF does differentiate between a pistol and a revolver, we can actually start to get an idea of what the percentage picture will look like. We can assume that all guns which the ATF calls pistols will be semiautomatics, including both striker and hammer fired as well as AR-style pistols.
In the most recent data year covered by the ATF, 2018, there were 4,545,993 handguns manufactured. Of those, 3,881,158 were pistols. This makes up around 85% of all handguns manufactured.
Modern Sporting Rifles
Modern sporting rifle is the term most often used to describe current semiautomatic style rifles in America. The term encompasses guns such as the AR, which are often mislabeled by the uninitiated as “assault weapons.” While the term modern sporting rifle doesn’t necessarily cover every semiautomatic rifle in the U.S., it comes close and can be used to estimate based on the data.
According to the most recent information available on modern sporting rifles from the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), these rifles made up half of all rifles manufactured in 2017. Additionally, during the period from 1990 to 2017, around 17.7 million of these rifles were manufactured or imported.
Given the numbers that are available, it’s possible to determine a ballpark figure of total semiautomatic guns owned in the United States. By combining the available information and dividing by the number of estimated guns owned, we can arrive at an educated guess. Time for some math.
The NSSF reports an estimated 423 million total firearms are owned by private citizens in the United States.
The NSSF shows 17.7 million modern sporting rifles produced from 1990-2017. The ATF data for the same timeframe on pistols is just over 52.4 million. Those combined equal to around 70.1 million semiautomatic handguns and rifles. If that's divided by the 423 million firearms owned, the percentage comes to about 17%. When the percentages of shotguns are accounted for, plus those before the timeframe used, it looks like the NRA number is actually fairly close to accurate.
Whether you were unaware of what semiautomatic meant and wanted to know about how many of these guns were in the U.S. or you're just a curious gun owner, hopefully this helps clear things up a bit. Whatever the reason you needed this information is, perhaps you can use it to educate those around you. Because one thing is for sure: This country could certainly use more education when it comes to guns.