The 2nd Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees Americans’ right to keep and bear arms. It was written at the time America had thrown off the control of its colonial master, Great Britain, and was intended to ensure that the people would never be helpless against a tyrannical government. In many ways, America was created and built by private citizens with guns in their hands, both in war and in the taming of the frontier. Firearms are an unquestioned part of American culture.
But Americans are not the only civilians who own guns, and some of the countries with the most guns per capita may surprise you. Determining how many guns are in the hands of civilians is always a tricky undertaking, even in countries with strict gun registration and control laws. There are always guns that slip through the cracks, and people are not always willing to disclose if they own a gun. In addition, some countries live in a continual state of chaos where the government barely functions, and illegal guns stream across their borders.
To put this list together, I have drawn on several different measures of worldwide gun ownership to try to arrive at a reasonably accurate number. These include everything from the U.S. National Shooting Sports Foundation to the Switzerland Small Arms Survey. Even with multiple resources, the numbers presented are approximations based on the latest year of data available. If you do your own research, you may change the positions of some of these countries on the list, but it will probably still be the same countries showing, even if they are in a slightly different order.
It’s also important to consider how fast civilian gun ownership has grown in America in the past few years. Social unrest, violent crime, and government efforts to enact more stringent gun control have combined to increase private ownership of guns and create a whole new generation of gun owners in America.
Civilian Gun Ownership by Country
Numbers are for civilian gun ownership and do not include police or military guns. Rankings are based on guns per 100 people in the population and not on the total number of guns in the country.
It’s also significant to consider the types of guns in each country. For example, in the U.S., there are more handguns in civilian ownership than rifles or shotguns. However, in many other countries, there are very few handguns compared to the number of rifles. In Europe, civilian ownership of handguns is strictly limited, so the most prolific types of guns are often shotguns used for hunting and sport shooting. In countries like Yemen, there are more AK-type rifles than anything else.
1. United States
- Civilian Firearms: 434M
- Firearms per 100 People: 127
The demographics of gun ownership in America have changed dramatically in the past 30 years. In 1986, there were more revolvers in circulation than pistols. Today, there are at least six times as many pistols as revolvers in civilian hands. Likewise, gun ownership has changed to include many more women and minorities than there were even ten years ago.
The U.S. is a huge country, and measurements of crime that only consider firearms paint a wildly inaccurate picture. Most homicide statistics include suicides, as well as defensive gun uses where citizens protect themselves from criminals. It also does not differentiate between crimes that involve gang violence and drug deals gone bad from crimes involving innocent victims. The reality is that the vast majority of civilian gun owners in America are ordinary people who live peaceful lives and never use their guns to commit crimes.
2. Falkland Islands
- Civilian Firearms: 2K
- Firearms per 100 People: 62.10
The Falklands are a tiny group of islands off the coast of Argentina that are part of Great Britain. Although Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982, gun ownership is not geared towards defense. Gun ownership is restricted to licensed residents and is mostly rifles used for hunting and pest control.
- Civilian Firearms: 14.9M
- Firearms per 100 People: 52.80
Yemen is one of those countries engulfed in constant warfare and chaos. Guns are primarily AK-style rifles, and the number in the country is probably much higher than statistics indicate. Guns are brought in by the shipload to fuel the continual civil war that consumes the country.
4. New Caledonia
- Civilian Firearms: 115K
- Firearms per 100 People: 42.50
New Caledonia is a tiny French territory in the Pacific Ocean just east of Australia. Gun ownership Is strictly regulated and consists mainly of rifles and shotguns for hunting and sport shooting.
- Civilian Firearms: 2.7M
- Firearms per 100 People: 39.10
Gun ownership is an integral part of Serbian culture. That added to the conflicts of the post-Yugoslavia years has resulted in a relatively high per capita gun ownership with an emphasis on both sports and self-defense. Serbians embrace the right of individuals to protect themselves and their families.
- Civilian Firearms: 245K
- Firearms per 100 People: 39.10
Montenegro is another country that shares the historical turmoil of Yugoslavia. The gun culture is strong there, with a significant number of people both hunting and participating in shooting sports. Unfortunately, illegal arms trafficking through that part of Eastern Europe has resulted in the government tightening up on gun control laws in recent years. It’s conceivable that the influx of immigrants from outside the country has contributed to the problems. Montenegro’s overall population increased by 2% last year due to immigration.
- Civilian Firearms: 12.7M
- Firearms per 100 People: 34.70
Canada has very strict gun control laws, and gun ownership is highly regulated. Nevertheless, the number of people making their homes in the thousands of square miles of forests and tundra means that guns are a daily necessity for hunting and survival. Because Canada’s constitution does not guarantee the right to own and bear arms, it has low gun ownership compared to the United States. Handguns are highly restricted, and it is very difficult to get approval to purchase one.
- Civilian Firearms: 1.2M
- Firearms per 100 People: 34.70
As in much of Latin America, gun ownership in Uruguay is regulated. Citizens must obtain a license to purchase a gun, primarily for self-defense and sport shooting.
- Civilian Firearms: 285K
- Firearms per 100 People: 34
Cyprus has a history of conflict across the line between Greek and Turkish Cypriots throughout the 20th Century that is still not resolved today. Consequently, the ownership of guns is a hot topic, and many people are reluctant to disclose whether or not they own a gun. Officially, Cypress has a moderate level of gun ownership, mainly used for sport shooting and hunting.
- Firearms: 1.8M
- Firearms per 100 People: 32.40
Finland has a long and proud tradition of independence and gun ownership. Hunting is a common pursuit, and Finland produces some very nice hunting rifles. Although there are regulations in place requiring background checks and licenses to own a gun, Finland’s gun laws are quite lenient compared to the rest of Europe. The Soviet invasion of 1939 and the continued threat of their border with Russia have given Finns a deep sense of the necessity to own firearms to safeguard their security.
- Civilian Firearms: 1.9M
- Firearms per 100 People: 31.90
Lebanon has a history of civil war, conflict between religious groups, terrorism, and regional instability. Firearms are quite prevalent in the country, and there are likely to be many more than the reported numbers shown here. The trafficking of military weapons is widespread.
- Civilian Firearms: 106K
- Firearms per 100 People: 31.70
Firearms in Iceland are primarily used for hunting and sport shooting. Gun laws require a license to own a gun, and automatic weapons are prohibited. Iceland has no military tradition and a low crime rate, making firearms ownership much more casual than for many of the other countries on this list.
13. Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Civilian Firearms: 1.2M
- Firearms per 100 People: 31.20
Bosnia and Herzegovina is another country that was once part of Yugoslavia. The breakup of Yugoslavia and the bitter conflict of the Bosnian War have influenced the diverse population to value the ability to defend itself. Although the government has made an effort to regulate civilian firearms, illegally obtained weapons are common, and disclosure by firearms owners is low.
- Civilian Firearms: 2.6M
- Firearms per 100 People: 30
It’s not surprising that the birthplace of Glock has a tradition of firearm ownership. However, like the rest of Europe, firearm ownership is strictly regulated, and handguns are particularly difficult to own. Hunting and sport shooting are popular, and shotguns and rifles are relatively common.
16. North Macedonia
- Civilian Firearms: 621K
- Firearms per 100 People: 29.80
North Macedonia is a small country just north of Greece. Like many of the countries of Eastern Europe, gun ownership is much more common than in Western Europe. Gun ownership is regulated, but civilians can obtain a license to purchase guns for sport shooting and self-defense.
- Civilian Firearms: 1.5M
- Firearms per 100 People: 28.80
Norway is another country known for its independent spirit and outdoor lifestyle. The country has a rich hunting tradition, and many residents own rifles and shotguns for hunting and sport shooting. Norwegian gun laws require licensing and background checks, but the gun ownership rate is relatively high.
- Civilian Firearms: 11K
- Firearms per 100 People: 28.80
Liechtenstein is a tiny country on the border between Switzerland and Austria. Located in the beautiful Alps, firearms are popular for hunting and shooting sports. Ownership is strictly regulated by the government.
- Civilian Firearms: 119K
- Firearms per 100 People: 28.30
Malta is a tiny island nation off the coast of Italy. Although it has strict regulations on gun ownership, gun licenses are issued for sport shooting and hunting purposes.
- Civilian Firearms: 2.3M
- Firearms per 100 People: 27.60
Switzerland is noted as a country where guns are relatively common compared to the rest of Western Europe. Much of Switzerland’s military consists of militias, so many people own guns. Since military service is mandatory and guns are strictly regulated, the Swiss population is generally well-trained in firearm use.
Other countries that fall in the top 30 for firearm ownership include Iraq, Pakistan, and Germany, but in reality, the list is probably not entirely accurate. I have traveled and worked extensively in Iraq, and the idea that there are fewer guns per capita there than in Norway is a little hard to believe. The same is true of many countries in Africa. Governments in some less developed nations like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burkina Faso, and Niger, places we used to call the Third World before that became a politically incorrect phrase, can barely keep the lights on, let alone keep detailed records or control the flow of arms over their borders. They are filled with multiple bands of roving jihadist bandits and terrorists who are all heavily armed.
The Northwest Frontier region of Pakistan, the famous Khyber Pass of Rudyard Kipling fame, hosts a thriving cottage industry in firearms manufacturing. Locals in cities like Quetta build everything from AKs to Browning Hi-Powers in tiny shops on the street, yet Pakistan is only number 23 on the list. The difference in numbers is due to two things. First, the government works assiduously to keep the population unarmed to better control them. Second, the government and other reporting agencies really have no idea how many guns are in the country and very little power to control some regions of their country.
We in the United States live in a unique country where our right to keep and bear arms is protected under a constitution that was created by people who understood how fragile freedom can be. We have seen how governments in places like Australia and Great Britain have stripped their citizens of their right to self-defense and well as the enjoyment of shooting sports with a simple stroke of the pen. The United States would not exist at all if Americans had not been able to raise a gun in their own defense and to tame a frontier. We are a country steeped in a rich culture of firearms ownership, and I, for one, am glad.
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