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7 Things You Should Know About Guns

Written by Denise-Marie Ordway for The Journalist’s Resource, published by the respected Harvard Kennedy School-Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, we changed the title from 7 Things Journalists Should Know About Guns to 7 Things You Should Know About Guns.

Regardless of your beliefs, we thought it would be helpful to start with definitions rooted in fact.


Guns are one of the most divisive topics in the U.S., so it’s crucial for journalists to get the details right — down to the type and style of weapon discussed.

Nationwide, 32% of U.S. adults say they own a gun and 44% live in a gun-owning household, according to a Gallup survey conducted in October 2020. When reporters make mistakes, audiences might see their work as sloppy or, worse, perceive errors as an effort to mislead. Regardless, when the news media get facts wrong, audiences — especially gun owners — might not trust the information they provide.

To warn reporters about pitfalls they can encounter in covering guns and brief them on some basic terminology, The Journalist’s Resource teamed up with two reporters with lots of experience writing about firearms. We thank Henry Pierson Curtis, who covered gun and drug trafficking and other crime at the Orlando Sentinel for 25 years before retiring in 2016, and Alex Yablon, who covered the business of guns and gun policy for about five years at The Trace, for helping us create this tip sheet.

Here are seven things journalists should keep in mind when reporting on guns:

1. People who die in mass shootings represent a small fraction of the number who die from gunshots in the United States.

In 2019, 39,707 people in the U.S. died from injuries caused by firearms, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most gun deaths — 23,941, or 60% — were suicides. Meanwhile, 37% of the people killed by guns in 2019 — 14,861 people — were homicide victims.

2. Most guns made in the U.S. are handguns.

While AR-15 military-style rifles get a lot of media attention, most firearms made in this country are handguns. In 2019, gun companies manufactured more than 3 million semi-automatic handguns, which the federal government categorizes as “pistols,” and 580,601 revolvers, data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) show. That year, nearly 2 million rifles and 480,735 shotguns also were manufactured.

“There are just so many handguns out there,” Yablon says. “That has really been the story of America’s love of guns. There have been many, many AR-15s and AK-47s sold in the past 10 or 15 years, but there have been far more handguns sold.”

An October 2017 study led by researchers at the Harvard Injury Control Research Center finds that firearms acquired over the prior 20 years were disproportionately handguns. Still, long guns, which include rifles and shotguns, make up 53% of the firearms owned by civilians.

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