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85% of the world’s 1 billion guns are in civilian hands

A trio of new reports by the Small Arms Survey finds that 85% of the world’s one billion guns are in the hands of its citizens who far outgun the militaries and police responsible for their protection.

Most of the world’s guns are in private hands. (Credit: Small Arms Survey)

There are roughly a billion guns in the world, according to the latest data compiled by weaponry watchdogs the Small Arms Survey. Of these, a stunning 857 million are owned by private citizens, with only 133 million in the hands of authorized military forces and just 23 million used by law enforcement. This lop-sided ratio is getting more extreme, too—led by increases in U.S. purchases—with individuals possessing 650 million of the world’s firearms just ten years ago. These numbers include all firearms, of any type.


About the survey

The Small Arms Survey’s tally is as detailed as possible, but given the uneven way in which the raw data is published throughout the world, their conclusions inevitably involve some estimating. In addition, only about 12% of these weapons are registered—that’s about 100 million out of the billion—so definitive figures are tricky to come by. In the interest of accuracy, the organization analyzed a wide range of documentation, including governmental data, manufacturing information, surveys, and so on. This is all explained in the actual reports, of which there are three:

All visualizations in this article are from Small Arms Survey.

Where are all these guns?

The four countries with the most civilian guns are the U.S., India, China, and Pakistan.

The report includes an interactive map that allows you to zoom in and drill down into the local statistics. Click or touch the image below to learn more about each region’s citizen, military, and law enforcement ownership. Click or touch the desired country for an informational popup.


Gun ownership by Americans

America is one of the countries with a more comprehensive array of data. If you examined the U.S. in the interactive map above, you've probably already noticed that almost all of its estimated 393 million guns are unregistered, a surprisingly high figure.

Also surprising is the number of guns per 100 people: 120.48. Yes, that’s right: there are more guns in the U.S. than people. Here’s what these figures look like worldwide.

What guns are Americans buying?

The report says that gun ownership in the U.S. is growing at a rate of 4.16% a year. Of these, the mix of guns is shifting toward more pistols and to rifles since the Federal Assault Weapons Ban lapsed in 2004. Cited is a survey done by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a gun-manufacturers group. Its data say 13% of all new gun purchases in the U.S. are semi-automatic rifles as of 2012, the date of the latest relevant statistics.

The NSSF says that 42.3% of active gun owners in America own at least one AR-15/M-16-type semi-automatic assault weapon, the rifle of choice in many mass shootings. Another NSSF survey from 2016 found that about 14 million people reported they use these guns for hunting and recreational shooting.

Overall, gun purchases in the U.S. are nearly flat except when it comes to pistols and rifles—they’re skyrocketing.

The Small Arms Survey’s reports don’t get into the "whys" behind the growth in citizen ownership of firearms. It’s more concerned with presenting an as-accurate-as-possible picture of the situation.

Military guns

Most of the world’s military guns belong to Russian fighters, followed closely by China.

The U.S. military has 4.4 million weapons, compared to the American public possessing 393 million. Many American gun owners believe the Second Amendment of the Constitution entitles them to guns in order to “maintain a well-regulated militia,” but the fact that citizens now so outgun the actual military suggests a strange balance of relative power that was not likely to have been the intention of the amendment's framers.

Law enforcement guns

U.S. police officers are even more overwhelmed by the American public’s arsenal, with about a million guns allocated to their mission of protecting the peace. There’s more to power than the simple possession of a firearm, of course, and so these numbers don’t tell the whole story of contemporary law enforcement in the U.S. Still, the police, like the military, exist to protect their populations. How odd that those populations have so much more firepower at their disposal.

Once again, the countries with the most law-enforcement weaponry are Russia and China.

Where does this leave us?

The Small Arms Survey presents a striking picture of an increasingly armed world population with far more guns at their disposal than their own military and law enforcement. We’re a global armed camp, more so in some places than others. The rise in personal gun ownership seems like a loaded weapon of its own, armed and ready for firing with provocation—we can only hope people find the restraint to keep their fingers off the trigger.

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Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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