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Mapping the Sale of Firearms vs. Frappuccinos

A new data viz compares two easily accessible items in the U.S.

1 Point 21 Interactive

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reports that 64,747 licensed gun dealers (defined here as gun shops, pawnbrokers, or individual sellers) existed in the U.S. as of December 2015. But that raw number alone might not mean much to you. So a new mapping project by data viz company 1point21 Interactive tries to contextualize this number by comparing it to something all Americans know exists in abundance: Starbucks.

Looking at the Federal Firearms License data, the first question I asked myself was, ‘Is that a lot—it sounds like a lot?’” Brian Beltz, who helped put the project together, tells CityLab. “That's why we chose to compare it to something that everyone knows and has a reputation of being on every corner.”

In their analysis, Beltz and colleagues found that there were six gun dealers in the U.S for every Starbucks (of which there are 10,843, according to 2013 data). Gun sellers also outnumber grocery stores (37,716 in 2014), McDonald’s (14,350 in 2014), and total coffee shops (55,246 in 2016) in the U.S. If gun collectors, manufacturers, and importers were all counted as gun dealers, the total number balloons to 138,659—far more than, say, the number of public schools in the country (98,328 in 2011-12).

There are some caveats to note about this analysis. The data available for Starbucks and some of the other comparisons aren’t as recent as the data on gun sellers. Not everyone with a license to sell guns (Category 1 and 2 in this list) actively sells them. And juxtaposing all gun dealers with a single coffee retailer “isn't exactly an apples-to-apples comparison,” Beltz concedes.

“We are comparing one specific coffee brand (even though it is the biggest one) to all licensed gun dealers in the U.S,” he writes via email. “Perhaps using data for total coffee shops would be a better comparison, but I think using the most recognizable brand resonates well. Using Starbucks is just to give it a sense of scale and, again, gave us the ability to plot them on a map.”   

Similar comparisons have been made in the past. But while the point that guns aren’t hard to access for most Americans isn’t new, it’s evident in the abundance of pink dots representing gun dealers in the Beltz’s map. In the national map, yellow circles also indicate the number of mass shootings that took place in a city in 2015. On their site, Beltz and his colleagues explain why they’ve included that component:

With the escalation of gun violence and mass shootings all over the country, it sometimes seems like firearms are more accessible than corporate coffee. Showing the location of recent mass shootings along with the distribution of gun dealers may help tell part of the story.

A close look at individual cities reveals how greatly the number of gun dealers varies based on local factors. Washington, D.C., for example, has a very similar amount of Starbucks and gun dealers:

Zooming in on the D.C. city map shows the location of gun dealers (in pink) and Starbucks cafes (in green):

Then there’s the complicated case of Chicago, known for high levels of gun violence and strict gun-control laws. The number of licensed gun dealers here isn’t very high, as per the map below. But city officials have attributed gun crimes to illegal firearms “bought outside of the city or state, where regulations are not as strict,” DNA Info reports.

On the other side of the spectrum is Charlotte, North Carolina, which is sprinkled with mostly pink dots (gun dealers) on the map:

Check out how gun dealers compare with Starbucks in your city here.

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.