Kim-State gun ownership
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Kentucky, California and Texas currently top the nation in the number of people getting federal background checks in the process of acquiring a gun. Indiana, Illinois and Florida are not far behind.

From January 1 to May 31, 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) conducted more than 1.5 million background checks on Kentuckians buying guns, along with more than 974,000 checks in California and roughly 739,000 in Texas. Kentucky’s population currently numbers 4.4 million, which means the FBI carried out nearly one firearms background check for every three Kentucky residents.

Under the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act, passed in 1993, anyone seeking to buy a gun from a licensed dealer must complete a background check, typically conducted through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. So far this year, the FBI has completed nearly 11.7 million background checks on Americans looking to get a gun. In 2015, the FBI completed a total of more than 23.1 million such investigations.

The number of background checks is actually only a rough proxy of the number of guns being bought and sold in each state each year. Background checks aren’t required for private sales, and only six states plus the District of Columbia require gun registration, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. There is no federal registration.

As a result, there’s actually no way to know exactly how many guns there are in the United States. One estimate by the Congressional Research Service put the total number of civilian firearms in the United States in 2009 at about 310 million, including 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles, and 86 million shotguns. As points out, this means there’s roughly one gun per person in the United States.

Guns also outnumber cars and trucks. According to the Department of Transportation, 253.6 million cars and trucks (including commercial vehicles) were registered in 2012.

The following chart shows the states with the greatest number of federal background checks for gun sales from January 1 to May 31, 2016:

As the nation struggles to manage and prevent gun violence, a national “census” of the number of guns might be a sensible first step.

Updated as of June 13, 2016.

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Anne Kim is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection.