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Who are America's gun 'super-owners'?

Three percent of US adults hold about half of the country's guns, with collections from eight to 140 firearms, according to a new survey. What motivates these super owners?

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In this February photo, expert gunsmith Keith Carey stands behind the counter at his shop, where he makes suicide prevention literature available, in Montrose Colo. Three percent of American adults hold about half of the country's guns, with collections from eight to 140 firearms, according to a new survey.

Brennan Linsley/AP/File

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America may hold a reputation as a country of gun owners, but a new survey shows that roughly half of the nation’s weapons are owned by just three percent of the population.

Three percent of Americans own eight or more firearms, a cumulative 133 million of the country’s 265 million weapons, according to an unpublished survey from Harvard University and Northeastern University, whose results were reported by the Guardian and The Trace on Monday. These “super owners” have a multitude of reasons for accumulating their stash, from the guns' investment value, to their historical significance, to concerns about personal protection, the primary factor motivating about two-thirds of all gun owners, according to the study. 

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While many gun owners are staunch in their defense of what they consider their Second Amendment right to protect themselves, some experts say that the fear that motivates many to accumulate weapons can be dangerous in its own right.

“If we hope to reduce firearm suicide, if we hope to reduce the other potential dangers of guns, my gut is, we have to speak to that fear,” Harvard School of Public Health firearms researcher Deborah Azrael, the lead author of the study, told The Guardian.

According to the Harvard/Northeastern study, about 22 percent of American adults are gun owners. Fourteen percent of gun owners own between eight and 140 guns each. About half of American gun owners possess just one or two firearms.

Yet while such massive collections might seem unusual to non-gun owners or those with just one or two guns, the individuals who assemble them say that accumulating such an arsenal happens surprisingly naturally.

“The fact that you’d open the closet and have a stack full of guns in this country is really not a big deal. I know it sounds weird,” John Risenhoover told The Trace, which also reported on the study results. “It’s like buying shoes,” said Mr. Risenhoover, a retired Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent.

Like any carefully curating collector, many gun buyers make purchases to fill gaps in their collection – a historically significant firearm or a specific weapon to hunt a different type of game, for example. 

For some, guns are an investment. The weapons hold their value, and can be worth thousands of dollars, leading some major collectors to treat them as a potential source of retirement funds. 

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Many others, however, became interested in collecting weapons due to a fear of violence, present or future. Two-thirds of American gun owners now say that self-defense is their main reason for owning a weapon, a dramatic change from just two decades ago, when the most-mentioned reason was recreation. 

One subset of the gun-owning population has assembled small arsenals in order to prepare for more apocalyptic situations. When that happens, they say, Americans will want to be armed. 

One Florida truck driver with an approximately 40 gun-collection, identified only as Fred, told the Trace said that after a stint as a civilian truck driver in Iraq, he worries about what could happen to society if American infrastructure breaks down. And it isn’t pretty.

“All of our morals or ethics would be out the window in the fear of the inability to survive as soon we got just a little bit hungry,” he said.

Fred also expanded his collection for other reasons: personal protection and readiness, as well as the aesthetic appeal of his guns, which he likens to a woman’s expensive jewelry collection.

Others share Fred’s concern about a societal collapse that could leave them underprepared.

"If I had to pick a number to survive a collapse, I think every person in your family or group should have a personal handgun and a personal carbine," Bryce Towsley, the author of "Prepper Guns," told The Trace. "That's a bare minimum."

And, like the majority of gun owners, some super owners are interested in personal protection against more typical crime. Yet while the idea of self-defense is a powerful motivation to buy weapons, many public health experts say that concerns about violence are largely unfounded.

“The desire to own a gun for protection – there’s a disconnect between that and the decreasing rates of lethal violence in this country. It isn’t a response to actuarial reality,” Matthew Miller, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and Northeastern University, and an author of the study, told The Guardian.

Some super owners expressed concern after the study came out, worried that the idea that so many guns are in the hands of so few Americans would open a path forward for gun control campaigns to demonize them. 

“I’m what used to be considered a Joe Average American,” Mr. Towsley told The Trace. “I’m a little conservative in my politics. I work hard. I pay my taxes, I raised my kids.… I try to give back.”


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