ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Roughly half of all the guns in this country are possessed by just 3 percent of American adults. That's one of the top findings in a new survey on gun ownership in America from researchers at Harvard and Northeastern universities.
The study also reveals that even as the country has gotten less violent, most gun owners say they bought weapons for self-protection, rather than for hunting or target shooting. Lois Beckett covers gun policy and politics for The Guardian. And she wrote about this study and joins us from New York. Thanks for being with us today.
LOIS BECKETT: Great to talk to you.
SIEGEL: As I mentioned, this survey found that gun ownership in America is highly concentrated among people you've called super-owners. How big is that group? And how many guns do they own?
BECKETT: So that's 7.7 million people. And they own an average of 17 guns each.
SIEGEL: Which accounts for a large number of the guns in the country.
BECKETT: Yeah. People usually say, well, there's about a gun in the United States for every single person here. So you'd think that every American has a gun. But it turns out that, no, only about a quarter of Americans own guns. And a lot of them just own one or two. And there's just this one small group. And they own a whole bunch.
SIEGEL: Well, what do these owners of 15 or 20 or, in some cases, 100 guns say about why they've built up such a collection of guns?
BECKETT: Well, gun owners explain to me that, actually, 17 isn't that many guns, especially because so many Americans inherit their firearms from their fathers or grandfathers. So if you start out with five or 10, and you have a couple for hunting deer and duck, and you have a handgun or two, you can actually get to 17 pretty quickly.
SIEGEL: We've heard quite a bit about record gun sales in the last several years. But does this finding suggest a lot of those sales weren't going to new gun owners but, rather, people just adding to their already-ample collections?
BECKETT: That was what was really interesting in talking to some of these super-owners - is I talked to one man from Delaware who, before the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, had owned just one or two guns and never even fired them.
But when he heard a gun ban might be coming, he immediately went out and bought an AR-15. By three months after Sandy Hook, he had 10 guns. Today, he has 43.
SIEGEL: Is there any evidence that being a super-owner is linked to increased gun violence, whether of suicide or homicide?
BECKETT: No, there's no evidence of that. It's not clear how much riskier it is to own 40 or 50 or 100 guns than it is just to own one or two. It's possible that group of people might be a lot safer.
People who are really serious collectors of some of these fully automatic firearms - they have to pass a lot more scrutiny to get their guns. So someone who has a collection of historic military weapons - they've gone through a lot of screening. And they're probably a very responsible citizen.
SIEGEL: You mentioned Sandy Hook. Do highly publicized mass shootings - do they seem to have created these spikes? Do you find other people who increase their arsenal after some very publicized assault?
BECKETT: The rates of gun purchasing have spiked in the last couple of years. That started, actually, as Obama became president. But as we've seen more and more publicized, high-profile mass shootings, we see the number of background checks for new gun purchases just going up higher and higher every year.
SIEGEL: You spoke to groups that support gun rights. And they were somewhat skeptical about the findings here. Why? What were their questions?
BECKETT: Well, they just said that they were going to reserve judgment until they had seen the full results of the study.
SIEGEL: And what about gun owners? What did you hear from them in response to your findings - or to these findings?
BECKETT: Gun owners were really nervous about these findings. A couple of them told me they were concerned this was a politically motivated study that would be used to argue that people who own so many guns should have some of them confiscated.
But the study researchers actually had the totally different reaction. They said they were most focused on the people who owned just one or two guns and that changing their behavior - changing how they stored their guns or whether they owned them at all - that could have the biggest impact on gun suicide.
SIEGEL: Suicides being a very large share of the number of gun deaths in the United States.
BECKETT: Right - about 20 of the more than 30,000 every year.
SIEGEL: Lois Beckett, who covers gun policy and politics for The Guardian - Lois, thanks for being with us.
BECKETT: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.