I-Team: More Guns Owned By Fewer People

Ed. Note: The national debate about gun violence and gun control has generated strong emotions on all sides following the recent tragedies in Connecticut and Colorado. Should Americans' Second Amendment rights be restricted in the interests of public safety, or is gun violence something that no law could curb? This is part 2 of Guns of Nevada.

LAS VEGAS -- Americans own more guns, by far, than any other industrialized country and experiences more gun violence than any advanced nation.

Why so many? The short answer is we don't know.

There is no law that requires most guns to be reported to anyone. The best estimate is that Americans own 310 million guns, almost one for every man, woman and child, but ownership patterns are changing, and it looks like more and more guns are in fewer and fewer hands.

Defenders of the Second Amendment say gun ownership is part of Americans' cultural DNA, and it is hard to argue with that. Guns won our freedom, conquered the West and are a dominant fixture in popular entertainment. According to defenders of gun rights, Nevada has traditionally been a pro-gun state.

"Nevada has a history of being very pro-Second Amendment; however, in the last 10, 15, 20 years, Nevada has had an influx of out-of-staters," said Randy Mackie of the Nevada Firearms Coalition.

Meaning, attitudes about guns might be changing. One thing that hasn't changed is that there are a lot of guns.

"There is probably hundreds of thousands of guns on the streets," Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson said.

Lawmen like Wolfson deal with the aftermath of guns every day but no one can say for sure just how many there are. 

A new survey conducted for 8 News NOW shows that 46 percent of Nevada homes contain at least one gun. That figure would put us in the top 12 states in the nation for gun ownership. Although the number of guns in private hands increases by millions per year nationally, the percentage of homes with guns has decreased over the past 50 years, from 50 percent in 1960 to 43 percent today, according to Gallup surveys. It means we have more guns but in fewer hands.

Nevada is one of the least restrictive states when it comes to ownership or registration,  proponents of stricter gun laws said.

"Nevada is a very lax state in terms of gun safety laws," said Brian Fadie, a gun control advocate with ProgressNow Nevada. "You can open carry a weapon anywhere in the state, meaning you can strap a firearm to your side and walk around, anywhere in the state.

"In Clark County, you are required to register a firearm when you purchase it but you are not required to go through a background check when you purchase it through a private sale."

Metro Police admit they don't know how many guns are in private hands. Only Clark County requires the registration of handguns. Nevada has no requirement for the registration of rifles or shotguns. The most recent estimate shows more than 1.2 million guns registered in Clark County and more than 37,000 permits to carry concealed weapons.

The number of background checks following gun purchases has increased steadily since November 2008, which is when President Barack Obama was elected and it's not a coincidence.

High-profile gun crimes, such as the slaughter at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., or a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., always generate chatter about the possibility of stricter gun laws, which ironically, cause the sales of guns and ammo to spike.

Gun laws are stricter today than 50 years ago, Mackie noted, but it hasn't stopped the violence.

"They were much easier to buy," he said. "When we were growing up, if you will remember, comic books, there were ads on the backs of comic books, there were ads for firearms and you could order them through the mail."

"We were given an 'F' rating on our gun safety laws by the Gun Law Center out of California," Fadie said. "We have lenient restrictions on gun ownership compared to other states."

Proponents of stricter laws are careful to use the term gun safety instead of gun control. Both sides in the debate think the key is to keep guns out of the wrong hands, but how? Something is out of whack, but is it related to the number or types of weapons in private hands?

"There are mentally ill people all over the world, but we don't see all over the world the mass shootings like we do here in the U.S. and I think that is partially due to the availability of assault weapons and high capacity magazines and loopholes in our background check system," Fadie said.

Why do Americans buy so many guns? The most common reason is for self protection. We get guns to protect ourselves and our families from others who have guns. Is there a link between high rates of gun ownership and the rate of violent crime? The experts disagree.

At 5 p.m. Tuesday, George Knapp looks at the crime numbers, and also at cases where guns saved lives. This project includes a massive online database assembled by I-Team researcher Steve Kanigher. We urge you to take a look as our series unfolds all this week.


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