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Just how many is a trillion, anyway?

January 12, 2019

Way back when I was in college for the very first time (way back then it was a teacher sitting on one end of a log and student on the other), I wanted to be not just a double major, but a triple one. I wanted degrees in marine biology, oceanography and ocean engineering. Then, one day, I began my dance with calculus, that bitc-. Sorry, I digress.

One of the things I learned during my brief flirtation with engineering is that, at least for most of us, numbers reach a point, simply in terms of the number of digits, that they cease to convey any real meaning or “feel.” They simply become too big (or too small) for us to wrap our heads around them. Sure, we can discuss them in a sort of detached, intellectual fashion, but again, to most of us, the feel isn’t there. Which brings me to guns and ammunition in the United States.

For longer than I can remember, I have heard that there are, in the US, around 300 million (that’s 300,000,000) privately owned guns. That is almost certainly wrong. A report from June, 2018 from the Small Arms Survey estimated there to be about 393 million (393,000,000) guns in the US (I’m going to be providing the numbers both ways, for reasons I hope will become clear). Back in 2016, “WeaponsMan” provided his own estimated range of 412 million (412,000,000) to perhaps 660 million (660,000,000). I actually find his reasoning pretty compelling, so I tend to round off the numbers at about 500 million (yep, more zeroes…it’s 500,000,000) privately owned guns in the US. That’s a half-billion guns. A half-billion of anything is a lot! While I doubt WeaponsMan’s upper estimate is correct, the possibility makes me chuckle, especially when I think of the discomfiture such a thing would produce among gun control advocates. I have no issues, then, when pro-Second Amendment people talk about there being far more than a mere 300 million (300,000,000) guns in the US.

My issues come into play when we talk about ammunition.

I know people who own both a single gun and a single box of ammunition for it. And, I know people who own a lot of guns and multiple thousands of rounds for each of them (or at least for each caliber in their various gun safes). I fall somewhere between those two extremes. If we were to speculate that the average gun owner has, say, 1000 rounds per gun, that gives us a total of 500 billion (500,000,000,000) rounds of ammunition. Wow. That borders on what some would call a “metric a**-ton.” Some people, though, are not content with that number. I have had some gun owners suggest there are as many as 10 trillion (10,000,000,000,000) rounds of privately owned ammunition in the US. Some have gone so far as to suggest there are multiple tens of trillions of such rounds. Let’s think about this for a minute. If there are, indeed, that many rounds of privately owned ammunition in the US, then my elementary school math tells me there are some 20 thousand (20,000) rounds per gun (10,000,000,000,000 rounds / 500,000,000 guns = 20,000 rounds per gun). Though I could be wrong, I find this profoundly unlikely. As for suggesting multiple tens of trillions of rounds, I find the idea patently absurd. After all, each multiple would require an additional 20,000 rounds per gun. Even a trillion rounds (1,000,000,000,000) would require 1000 rounds per gun (which is not unreasonable).

But, it gets worse.

We are not concerned only with the number of rounds per gun. Let’s look at the number or rounds per gun owner.

Many gun owners will argue that the total number of American gun owners is about 100 million (100,000,000). Let’s do the same math we did above, but let’s replace the number of guns with the number of gun owners. (10,000,000,000,000 rounds / 100,000,000 gun owners = 100,000 rounds per gun owner). The average, then, would be 100,000 rounds per gun owner. Remember, though, there are some gun owners who own only a single box of ammo (typically 20-50 rounds) per gun. This means some gun owners (arguably not the typical ones) must own significantly in excess of 100,000 rounds to make up for those who possess only 50-100. Really?

Do you see what I’m getting at? The numbers simply don’t make sense. And that’s my point. It sounds good, if one is trying to induce apoplexy among gun control advocates, to suggest there are multiple tens of trillions of rounds in the US. But the numbers seem unrealistic, to me. I think the problem is that the numbers tossed around are so large, have so many digits, that they overwhelm our ability to consider just what those numbers imply. We don’t consider what we’re doing when we move from billions to trillions. We aren’t increasing everything by a fact of 10 or even 100. No, we are increasing things by a factor of 1,000, but because our our difficulty comprehending numbers that large, there’s tendency to sometimes toss around big numbers without considering what we are actually saying.

Again, the numbers are just too big to make sense.

Think of the lottery. Let’s say you win the Power Ball and, after taxes, you walk away with a lump sum of 100 million dollars ($100,000,000.00). How long can you live on that? It all depends on your expenditures, right? Let’s say your yearly expenditures, after taxes, are $50,000.00/year (your real life expenditures may be more or less, but lets use 50k). How long can you live (in terms of when would you run out of money) on your $100,000,000.00? Elementary school math strikes again. You get 2000 years at that rate! (100,000,000 / 50,000 = 2000). Double your expenditures (increase them by a factor of 2) and you decrease your time by one-half, meaning you only get 1000 years. Some people find it amazing that the money could last that long, that they could spend $100,000.00 a year and still have the money last 1000 years. Let’s put it a different way. If you are an American male, you can expect to live an additional 57 years, on average. This means, if your life span is exactly average, you could spend almost $21,000.00 per day for the rest of your life, running out on your last day.* Pretty amazing, huh? And that’s what happens with really big numbers. The numbers and their implications are so great we often don’t have an immediate grasp of what they imply other than “a lot.”

I think it would be cool to be able to conclusively prove we have a half-billion (or more) guns in the US. Though that may well be the case, the fact that we don’t know where they are or who has them makes that an impossible task. Considering the alternative, I like it that way. When it comes to ammo, it would be nice to be able to prove, conclusively again, that we have 10 trillion or more rounds of privately owned ammunition in the US. In this case though, the difficulty is not simply that we don’t know who owns the ammo or where it is. The real difficulty is that those numbers are, from my perspective anyway, impossible to justify.


*Note: Actually, because of leap years, spending at that rate would mean you would run out of money about two weeks before your death.


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