NEW YORK — 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?
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 Co. 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.
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.