At least 50 people died and more than 50 were injured after a gunman identified by police as Omar Mateen opened fire in a crowded Orlando nightclub early Sunday morning, the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. The attack, occurring against the the backdrop of a bitter presidential election, led to familiar political debates over gun control and terrorism. Whatever comes of those debates, the shooting underscores a simple, indisputable fact: The United States of America has a lot of guns.
More than any other country in the world, in fact, by any measure.
American citizens own hundreds of millions more firearms than the residents of the next closest country, India, and more than 88 times the number of weapons as Australia, a country whose gun control policy President Obama has frequently praised.
TIME examined 10 countries across the world and their gun laws, supply and culture—and the result shows just how much of an anomaly U.S. gun ownership is, in part of course because it is one of a handful of nations that extends some form of constitutional right to bear arms. The countries below are ordered from fewest number of total guns to most. (Read more about our methodology at bottom.)
Japan has some of the oldest gun restrictions in the world, dating back to firearm controls implemented in the 16th century. David L. Howell, professor of Japanese history at Harvard University, said t he Shogunate restricted the manufacture of guns and banned most private ownership . Those measures effectively quashed any chance of Japanese gun culture, according to David Kopel, a Second Amendment scholar and author of The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy: Should America Adopt the Gun Laws of Other Democracies? Japan's current laws effectively ban all but hunting guns and air-powered rifles for target shooting and require a clean bill of mental health, ammunition restrictions and inspections by authorities in order to own firearms. “It's sort of like how people like you and I might feel about Sarin gas,” said Kopel, who also serves as reserve director at the Independence Institute, a think tank that has received grant money from the National Rifle Association's Civil Rights Defense Fund. “They think ‘Why would a person own one?’"
Australia, a former British colony, has a strong frontier spirit like the U.S.—but the two countries have very different attitudes on guns, especially when it comes to self-defense. Namely, Australian law doesn't recognize self-defense to be a reasonable justification for owning a gun, said Philip Alpers, an associate professor at the Sydney School of Public Health in Australia, and founding director of GunPolicy.org, a pro-gun control website that promotes a "public health" approach to reducing gun violence. “By and large people are horrified at that thought,” he said.“When you might get a robbery at a 7-Eleven and someone suggests you should be allowed to keep guns on the premises, all hell breaks loose in the media.”
Australia's already low gun ownership rate dropped further when a spate of mass shootings in the 1990s led to significant restrictions on the ownership of semi-automatic rifles, handguns and pump-action shotguns, including a 28-day waiting period, buyback programs, a genuine reason for ownership and in-person police inspections before a license can be granted.
England has effectively banned civilian handguns entirely (before 2008, even England's Olympic pistol shooters practiced outside the country) and purchasing a shotgun or hunting rifle requires interviews with the police and a "good reason." Self-defense is not an accepted answer. England also has a long history of limiting access to firearms. The Firearms Act of 1920 allowed local law enforcement to deny gun licenses at their discretion.
On a per capita basis, Switzerland, the tiny European nation has the third highest rate of firearm ownership in the world, with less restrictive gun laws that allow anyone over the age of 18 without a criminal record or a history of mental illness to own a semiautomatic weapon. Switzerland's strong gun culture is rooted in its history of defense, requiring all men to do military service—and those who serve are are allowed to keep their weapons at home. Even with more than 3 million firearms in circulation, Switzerland's gun homicide rate is 15 times lower than that of the U.S., according to GunPolicy.org.
Canada strikes a middle ground between strict European gun control laws and the looser American model, requiring prospective gun owners to undergo a training course and a 28-day waiting period, along with additional restrictions for those who want to buy handguns and some semiautomatic rifles. Licenses to carry may be denied by officials for any “good and sufficient reason."
While Canada shares America's frontier history, the U.S. and its northern neighbor long ago went separate ways when it came to guns, partly because the settlement of Canadian territory was more "managed," with mounties establishing order and trust in government, said Blake Brown, author of Arming and Disarming: A History of Gun Control in Canada. Some Canadians in the late 19th century "voiced support for an individual right to bear arms, but that strain within Canadian thinking dropped away,” Brown said. “[Later in the century] you started to have Canadians who identified gun rights as a difference between Canadians and Americans and created a cultural view of thought that, somehow, we're different than Americans in terms of firearms.”
Yemen is one of the only countries in the world where firearms—including machine guns—can be purchased without restriction. A historically weak central government—currently engaged in a civil war— has never exercised much control beyond a handful of population centers.
Guns have also formed a currency of sorts in Yemen, since the British began buying allegiance from tribal leaders with large shipments of weapons in the 1950s, said Clive Jones, deputy head of the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University in the United Kingdom. That tradition continues today, with former President of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh purchasing loyalty with gun shipments. As a result, firearms have become all but ubiquitous. “It's very rare certainly as you go to rural parts of Yemen that you would see a male not carrying some form of weapon,” Jones said.
In Mexico, buying a firearm legally is more difficult than in almost any other nation. Diligent citizens who manage to file the necessary paperwork to obtain a gun license must travel to Mexico’s only gun store, located in Mexico City, where they may purchase a weapon and a box of bullets.
Despite these strict laws, many Mexicans bypass the official procedures and purchase guns from the country’s “large non-official market” supplied by corrupt officials and international arms traffickers. “Poor people living in some rough city can't go through a licensing system that isn't going to operate that efficiently for anyone and will be pretty hostile for them," the Independence Institute's Kopel said, "so they get a gun for protection illegally." Drug cartels have also had no trouble acquiring enough weapons to carry out thousands of homicides.
Compared to European neighbors, Germany has a large number of guns in public hands. But there are strict requirements regulating everything from who can own guns to how those guns are stored. To own a gun, Germans must prove their expertise with firearms, undergo a criminal background check (and a psychiatric evaluation if under 25), show they are not dependent on alcohol or drugs and demonstrate a need for the weapon—and even then, they must meet a tough “reliability” standard that includes subjective and objective reasons for refusal. The German Weapons Authority may also carry out random inspections of gun owners’ homes to make sure they are in compliance with the law.
India is second only to the U.S. in terms of total civilian gun ownership, but with a population roughly four times as large, the country actually has fewer guns per capita than low ownership nations like Australia. That stems from stringent colonial firearms controls put in place after the 1857 Indian rebellion against the East India Trading Company’s rule, said Priya Satia, a Stanford history professor specializing in the British empire in the Middle East and South Asia. Following the rebellion, guns were strictly controlled by the central government, making firearm ownership effectively impossible for all but the ruling elite. Rohit De, a history professor at Yale, said members of the Indian nationalist movement—including Mahatma Gandhi—initially supported allowing more gun ownership, but brutal violence between Muslims and Hindus during the struggle for independence removed it from the agenda. Instead, the nation's post-independence laws continued the colonial tradition of strong gun control, restricting semi-automatic firearms, allowing the government to deny a license for any reason and requiring all licenses to be renewed after three years.
Americans own more guns, and drastically more guns per capita, than any other people in the world. In fact, the U.S. has more total firearms than the 23 countries that rank behind it combined.
America's vast civilian cache of arms can partly be attributed to less restrictive gun laws. While federal background checks are meant exclude felons and those with a history of mental illness, buyers can skirt the check by purchasing firearms from collectors or others not considered in the business of selling firearms, who are not required to run background reports.
Even America's relatively minimal hurdles to gun ownership are relatively recent: the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, passed in 1993, was the first law that mandated federal background checks on gun purchases from licensed dealers. New fully automatic machine guns could be legally bought until the passage of the Firearm Owners Protection Act in 1986. The deadly 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting, in which a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut school, led to a renewed push for restrictions. But even a bipartisan measure that would have expanded background checks on gun sales failed in the Senate.
All national gun ownership figures come from the 2007 Small Arms Survey. The survey seeks to estimate all firearms, legal or illegal, held in civilian hands through a number of indicators, including gun registration, expert estimates, household surveys, police firearm seizures, and data on total firearm production, imports and exports. While the number of guns has undoubtedly changed in some nations since the data’s publication, Aaron Karp, senior consultant for the Small Arms Survey, notes that most countries’ civilian arsenals have stayed relatively stable over the intervening years—with the exception of the United States, where gun ownership has seen the most growth. The 2007 numbers were used to illustrate American gun ownership in the interest of keeping to a consistent data set across countries (numbers aren't updated as frequently in some other countries). But according to the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. has at least 310 million guns available to civilians in 2009 for a rate of 1.01 guns per 100 people—not the 270 million total guns and 88.8 guns per 100 found in the 2007 survey and displayed above. W hile comprehensive estimates, such as those provided by the Small Arms Survey, inherently sacrifice some level of accuracy, they paint a broadly meaningful picture of gun ownership.