Lawmakers convene next week under pressure to consider limits on the purchase of assault rifles. But as congressional aides on both sides of the debate scramble to draw up background reports and statistics on the issue for their bosses, they’ll run into a basic informational roadblock: No one has any idea how many assault rifles are in circulation.
That’s intentional. By law, the government isn’t allowed to gather that metric and put it in a modern, searchable electronic database.
“Those numbers don’t exist because there’s no national registry,” said Jan Kemp, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “Because by law, we are not allowed to have a national registry.”
The gun industry’s argument against a registry that tracks the sale of guns goes like this, according to former ATF agent Mark Jones: If the government kept a database on firearms sold, it would have a de facto registry of gun owners, and if that existed, then the government would be just a step away from being able to confiscate people’s guns.
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“The gun industry says they’re afraid that the government will come and take their guns away,” Jones said.
Jennifer Baker, director of public affairs for the National Rifle Association, said the NRA is opposed to any sort of national gun registry, and said that knowing how many assault rifles are in circulation would be of no help to lawmakers considering legislation. (The NRA also has come out against raising the minimum age to buy an assault rifle to 21.)
“There’s no reason for the government to have a registry,” Baker said. “There’s no public safety reason for this other than having a roadmap to confiscating guns.”
The Feb. 14 shooting that killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, has heightened scrutiny of assault rifles. The killer used an AR-15 rifle, one of the most popular weapons in America both among general gun owners (the National Rifle Association calls it “America’s Most Popular Rifle”) and mass shooters (it has been used in 11 mass shootings since 2012, according to Stanford Geospatial Center, Stanford Libraries and USA Today research). AR-15 rifles and their cousins are special because although they are semi-automatic weapons and therefore only fire one bullet each time the trigger is pulled, they are known for being accurate and easy to modify with accessories such as extended magazines, to shoot hundreds of bullets without reloading, and bump stocks, to allow faster shooting.
Parkland student survivors have been calling for a ban on all assault weapons in the wake of the shooting, while President Donald Trump has voiced support for raising the minimum age to buy such weapons from 18 to 21. Trump said he has spoken with many members of Congress who support the increased age restriction.
The National Firearms Act forbids “any system of registration of firearms, firearms owners, or firearms transactions or dispositions be established.” Several restrictions added to congressional appropriations bills also prohibit ATF from requiring gun dealers to submit their inventories to law enforcement. The effect is to prevent ATF from setting up a system that would allow electronic retrieval of gun owners’ personal identification information, and from consolidating or centralizing records provided by firearms dealers.
Practically, that means firearm dealers retain their own records on gun sales and only give that information to ATF when or if they go out of business. Once with ATF, the records must be stored in a non-electronic form that is not easily searchable – currently in a warehouse of paper files in Martinsburg, West Virginia. The ATF cannot request information, such as how many AR-15s have been sold that year, from firearms dealers, and searching their own paper database for that information is next to impossible.
The only figures available that give even a hint of how many assault rifles may exist in the U.S. is manufacturer data. ATF publishes annual reports on the number of pistols, rifles, revolvers and shotguns manufactured and distributed in the U.S., but none of those categories are broken down more specifically, and there’s no way of knowing how many were actually sold to individuals.
Still, while limited, that data would seem to indicate the popularity of rifles and pistols has exploded in the past decade — manufacturing of guns in both categories has more than doubled. In 2007, 1.6 million rifles were made and distributed in the U.S., while by 2016 the number was up to 4.2 million. That doesn’t count rifles made overseas and imported into the U.S., or those manufactured in the U.S. and exported to other countries.
But the rifle category includes hunting rifles, semi-automatic hunting rifles, pump-action rifles and single-shot rifles. When asked how data could be obtained for each type of rifle, Jones, who worked at ATF for about two decades, said “we have absolutely no idea.”
“They don’t break it out deliberately,” Jones said. “That way it’s hard to tell anything really specific about these numbers.”
The NRA estimates that between 8.5 million and 15 million assault rifles are in circulation based on manufacturer data, said Baker, the group’s public affairs director.
The FBI also publishes figures on the number of firearm background checks conducted through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System every year. Those figures have rocketed as well. In 2007, the FBI conducted about 11 million NICS firearm background checks ; in 2017 it conducted about 25 million. But the FBI also cautions those numbers can’t be used to draw conclusions about how many firearms are actually sold, and figures are not broken down based on type of firearm.
Dave Chipman, who worked for the ATF for 25 years and is now a senior policy adviser at Giffords, an organization that lobbies for stricter gun laws, said the gun lobby tries to make it appear there are tens of millions of assault rifles already in circulation throughout the U.S. population; that way, it can argue the guns are commonly used, which will make Congress more reluctant to regulate.
“Do we have 5 million or 20 million of these?” Chipman said. “You want to know that difference, and you’re also looking at lawsuits based on impact to the public.”
One of the only public comprehensive estimates of AR-15s in circulation was done by Mark Overstreet, a research coordinator for the NRA, for a court case in 2009. Overstreet estimated 2.1 million assault rifles had been produced and distributed in the U.S. between 1986 and 2009. He also estimated that AR-15s accounted for 14.4 percent of all rifles manufactured in 2007. If that proportion held true in 2016, then more than 610,000 AR-15s were produced and distributed in the U.S. that year alone. But that’s very much an estimate.
Chipman estimated that there are 10 million assault rifles currently in circulation, but said he had “no comfort level” with that number and that he was “spitballing.”
“Even if that’s right, is it 10 people with a million guns, or 10 million people with one gun? We don’t know, and that doesn’t help good government looking out for public safety,” Chipman said. “When you don’t have numbers, you can quickly just say, ‘Oh, this is an impossible task.’ That’s a common narrative with the gun lobby, and it’s resonated with Congress.”