NSSF Detachable Mag Report Has Constitutional Implications

The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) recently published an interesting Detachable Magazine Report. The report estimates the number of detachable pistol and rifle magazines manufactured in the United States between 1990 and 2021. The numbers alone are eye-opening, but their potentially far-reaching Constitutional implications are more impactful. Let’s look briefly at the report, the data, and what it all means to American gun owners.

Man loading a magazine into an AR-15 rifle
Americans own A LOT of detachable magazines. (Karolina Grabowska via pexels.com)

The NSSF Detachable Magazine Report (1990-2021)

The report’s purpose is to “estimate the number of detachable firearm magazines, segmented by capacity, that have been sold and made available using the latest information (2023 initial study period). Estimate the number of magazines provided “in the box” with firearms made available to consumers along with secondary market / direct consumer purchase of firearm magazines.”

NSSF used the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives’ (ATF) Annual Firearms Manufacturers Export Reports (AFMER) to “to identify firearm manufacturers and corresponding firearm manufacturing activity of pistols and rifles.” NSSF removed companies that do not produce pistols and rifles capable of accepting detachable magazines.

The report includes the top 15 pistol and the top 15 rifle manufacturers whose products use detachable magazines. These companies account for roughly 80 percent of pistols and 60 percent of rifles covered by the 2021 AFMER. Further research and a direct survey identified how many magazines were provided with each commercially available firearm, along with their capacities, from 1990 to 2021. One magazine per firearm was assumed if data were not available. Consumer market totals were taken directly from the participating magazine manufacturers. The report also includes aftermarket magazines marketed directly to consumers.

The Results

The study’s results are most easily understood through the following table and graph. The report itself writes out the results, but the numbers run together. We’ll spare you that by just showing you the visuals, but there are a few caveats:

  • Not all commercial magazine manufacturers responded to the NSSF survey.
  • Lack of public information and records availability prevented some types of detachable magazines from being counted, including shotgun magazines.
  • Military and law enforcement sales were not counted.
  • Lack of data caused previously broken, destroyed, or discarded magazines not to be counted. The report does not clarify that statement, but it seems to indicate manufacturer wastage.
  • ATF AFMER reporting only began in 1990. Therefore, no reliable data exists for detachable magazines manufactured before 1990, though some of those magazines may still be available or in working condition.
  • The previous caveats mean that the report’s estimates are conservative and almost certainly underestimate the true numbers of detachable magazines in circulation. This conservatism is deliberate.
  • The report addresses magazines estimated to be in circulation and made for sale to American consumers at some point between 1990 and 2021. NSSF does not maintain that all those magazines are currently owned by American citizens, as there is no way to confirm such a claim.
  • The figures presented are rounded to the nearest 1,000.
NSSF Detachable Magazine Report table

Detachable Magazine Trends

The report conservatively estimates that Americans own almost 964 million detachable pistol and rifle magazines. Note that the latest numbers are from 2021. Brisk firearms sales in 2022, 2023, and 2024 have contributed to those numbers, especially with sales trends favoring semi-automatic pistols and rifles. Given the time lag and the study’s deliberate limitations, we can assume that the current true number is well over 1 billion.

Note that pistol magazines holding 11 or more rounds outnumber those holding 10 or fewer rounds. And rifle magazines with a 30+ capacity far outstrip those with 29 rounds or less. These numbers are important. They demonstrate that American gun owners are updating their magazine capacities as time passes and technology improves. The study does not directly address that trend, but we know that self-defense firearms have become increasingly popular, and magazine capacity is gradually improving. Americans are clearly taking advantage of it. The numbers also show that such magazines are in common use for lawful purposes. More on that later.

NSSF Detachable Magazine Report graph

NSSF shared some interesting data in the report’s discussion section:

  • Survey results suggest that 36.3 percent of Americans currently own at least one firearm.
  • 53.2 percent of those gun owners reported owning a detachable magazine for a pistol.
  • 32.7 percent reported owning a detachable magazine for a rifle.
  • 35.9 percent reported owning a detachable handgun magazine with an 11+ round capacity.
  • 24.3 percent reported owning a detachable rifle magazine with an 11+ round capacity.
  • Overall, 43 percent of firearm owners reported owning a detachable magazine with an 11+ round capacity.
  • The survey suggests that 8.9 percent of the US population owns a detachable magazine holding 11 or more rounds.
  • An estimated 28 million Modern Sporting Rifles (MSR) were manufactured between 1990 and 2021.
  • 52 percent of MSR owners reported that their rifle’s standard magazine capacity is 30 rounds. The relatively low percentage is certainly influenced by magazine capacity restrictions in various high-population states.

Legal Ramifications

NSSF is a firearms industry organization. They organize and operate SHOT Show every year. This report is framed as an industry tool, but its legal implications are clear. State and federal gun control efforts have often included magazine capacity restrictions. We’ve all heard politicians blathering on about how no one needs however many rounds to do whatever they’re doing. They then choose an arbitrary one-size-fits-all number as a limit. Usually, 10 rounds or 7 rounds.

But thanks to the Supreme Court’s Heller, McDonald, and Bruen Decisions, those magazine capacity restrictions are becoming legally untenable. They haven’t fallen yet, but honest application of the Heller methodology will eventually end those restrictions. Note that I said, “honest application.” That will be an uphill fight in itself, requiring a separate article. But let’s play along.

detachable pistol magazines
Most detachable pistol mags now hold at least 11 rounds. (Author’s Photo)

Caetano v. Massachusetts

The Supreme Court’s 2016 Caetano v. Massachusetts offers a glimpse of how it should work. Massachusetts resident Jaime Caetano successfully defended herself from a violently abusive ex-boyfriend by using a stun gun. Caetano was arrested since Massachusetts law forbids stun guns. Despite the prosecutor’s leniency recommendation, Caetano was convicted. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld the conviction, saying that stun guns were not protected by the Second Amendment because they were not “in common use” when the First Congress considered the Bill of Rights in 1789.

The US Supreme Court overturned Caetano’s conviction, excoriating the Massachusetts court’s opinion. Justice Samuel Alito immediately rejected the lower court’s finding, writing that “the reasoning defies our decision in Heller, which rejected as ‘bordering on the frivolous’ the argument ‘that only those arms in existence in the 18th century are protected by the Second Amendment.'”

Alito also wrote that “the [Massachusetts] Supreme Judicial Court’s conclusion that stun guns are ‘unusual’ rested largely on its premise that one must ask whether a weapon was commonly used in 1789. As already discussed, that is simply wrong.” This speaks to Heller’s “in common use” doctrine, which prohibits the government from banning an arm that is commonly used by the public for lawful purposes. Alito’s Caetano opinion noted that “approximately 200,000 civilians owned stun guns as of 2009. While less popular than handguns, stun guns are widely owned and accepted as a legitimate means of self-defense across the country. Massachusetts’ categorical ban of such weapons therefore violates the Second Amendment.”

detachable rifle magazines
Magazines are “arms” protected by the Second Amendment. (Author’s Photo)

Magazines as “Arms”

The courts are already recognizing that detachable magazines are necessary components of certain firearm designs, and therefore are defined as “arms” under the Second Amendment. California Federal District Judge Roger T. Benitez issued perhaps the most famous decision in that regard, striking down California’s magazine ban. But those cases are still working their way through the system, with certain appellate courts stonewalling their progress. One hopes the Supreme Court will hear them someday, though the lower courts appropriately applying Heller would be better.

Heller established the “in common use” doctrine. Caetano showed us what those numbers can look like. If 200,000 stun guns nationwide count as “in common use,” one could reasonably conclude that some 113 million 11+ capacity handgun magazines and 414 million 30+ capacity rifle magazines would meet that standard.

This report could figure prominently in future, or even current, legal challenges to magazine bans or capacity restrictions. Especially since it uses ATF data and is purposely conservative with that data. The Heller Decision, with its methodology, continues to thwart gun control schemes across the country. Remember, there would be no Bruen Decision without Heller. This NSSF report may provide a powerful means by which to apply Heller to detachable magazines.

William "Bucky" Lawson is a self-described "typical Appalachian-American gun enthusiast". He is a military historian specializing in World War II and has written a few things, as he says, "here and there". A featured contributor for Strategy & Tactics, he likes dogs, range time, and a good cigar - preferably with an Old Fashioned that has an extra orange slice.

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