Nearly half of the estimated 265 million privately owned guns in the United States belong to just 3% of American adults, according to an unpublished survey by Harvard and Northeastern universities.
The Guardian US and the Trace were granted exclusive access to the study's summary, set to be published in 2017, described Monday by the latter as "the most authoritative assessment of American gun ownership in 20 years."
These so-called "super-owners," who account for roughly 7.7 million people, own anywhere from eight to 140 guns each. Collectively, they own around 133 million guns, the survey estimated.
"The study's authors emphasized that, for any public health approach to reducing injury, you have to start with basic information, like the questions they asked: Who actually owns guns? How many? What kinds?" the Guardian's Lois Beckett, who examined the study's summary, wrote in an email.
"There are many basic facts about gun violence we don't really know," Beckett added. "For instance, how many people are shot each year in America and survive? Our estimates aren't that great."
Philip Cook, author of a canonical 1994 report on gun ownership, hailed the forthcoming report as essential to the study of firearms. Cook's report is widely regarded as the last of its kind to offer such comprehensive data on and analysis of gun ownership — until now.
"It's a fundamental building block for gun research," Cook said, according to the Trace. "And in a variety of ways, having this baseline information is going to inform research and policy development. It's essential that we have accurate and up-to-date information."
While the total number of guns has increased by 70 million since Cook's report, the proportion of people who own guns has shrunk by 3%. White, conservative men are most likely to own guns, but the proportion of overall male owners has decreased by 10% since 1994.
The study also estimated the number of annual gun thefts is much higher than previously thought. A 2012 statement issued by the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated about 232,000 firearms were stolen annually on average, but this study places that number at 400,000, the Guardian reported.
The report also sheds light on a leading motivation for gun ownership: self-defense. Ironically, as homicides have been on the decline since the mid-'90s, two-thirds of respondents cited self-defense as the reason for owning a gun.
"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," Deborah Azrael, the study's lead researcher and a firearms expert at the Harvard School of Public Health, told the Guardian.
The report and its findings are all the more crucial given Congress' successful push to prohibit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from funding gun violence studies.
Pro-gun politicians aligned with National Rifle Association successfully stipulated in the '90s that the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control would only receive funding if it did not "advocate or promote gun control." This is a trend that has continued over the past few decades.
The NRA wields considerable influence with its lobbying on Capitol Hill. "The National Rifle Association outspent supporters of new gun controls [expanding background checks] by hundreds of thousands of dollars as the Senate considered and ultimately rejected legislation," the Hill reported in 2013. The legislation in question came in response to the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
In a tweet Monday afternoon, the NRA responded to the Guardian's assessment of the report's summary.
Given the existing dearth of information on the issue, the forthcoming report may well be used to inform public policy — or at least the push to change it.