Guns and Homicides: US Leads the Way in Both

Data shows a clear correlation between ownership of guns and total homicide rate worldwide

Photo by Rod Waddington.
Photo by Rod Waddington.

Mass shootings at elementary schools. Ambushes at public movie theaters and clinics. Constant gun violence and homicides in inner cities. Gun control has become one of the most discussed political issues of the 21st century. Proponents assert that increased gun regulation decreases violence overall. Opponents claim that gun control is ineffective and unenforceable.

Unfortunately, as with many political debates, data that are used to support claims on either side are often misleading. Either correlations are erroneously derived or otherwise unsubstantiated. The debate on gun control has fallen victim to this trap perhaps more than any other issue. The data graphic below provides perhaps the most concise and thorough overview of the reality of gun control and violence throughout the developed world.

Developed countries defined by CIA World Factbook. Gun ownership and homicide data courtesy of The Washington Post. *Note: South Africa was omitted from the analysis due to an outlying crime rate, indicating a higher degree of social/cultural influence on homicide rate.

Here are the takeaways:

#1. There is a clear correlation between total homicide rate and gun ownership

One common fallacy made by gun control advocates is invoking data showing gun homicide rates per country. These statistics, therefore, nearly always show countries with more guns have higher rates of gun violence.

This is misleading.

If there is a country with high knife ownership, you better bet that that country will have a relatively higher rate of knife violence. It doesn’t matter what it is. This is one point that pro-gun advocates have right. In many ways, those who want to commit violent acts are going to do so with whatever weapon is most available to them.

In order to validate the merits of increased gun control, a relationship must be established not just between gun ownership and gun homicides, but between gun ownership and total homicides. Unfortunately for pro-gun advocates, this happens to be exactly the case. As we can see in the graphic, there is a definitive correlation between gun ownership and total homicide rate across developed countries. The trend line in the middle further illustrates this relationship.

#2. There are almost as many guns as people in the United States

In the United States, there are 88.8 guns per 100 people. That means that on average, there are almost 2.5 guns per household. Not only is that a high rate, it’s almost double second and third place Switzerland and Finland. However, both of those countries have conscription-based militaries, meaning that most men are professionally trained in gun handling and safety. As a result, gun ownership rates of Switzerland and Finland are higher than any other developed countries in Europe. Each country has a gun ownership rate of about 45 guns per 100 people, or in other words, nearly one gun for every other person (or for every male veteran*).

This reasoning cannot be used to explain the extreme rate of gun ownership in the United States. Instead, the cause is likely comprised of a combination of the prevalence of recreational shooting (equally popular in other countries), lax gun regulation, and the influence of special interest gun groups such as the National Rifle Association. Many polls even suggest that American gun sales/ownership spikes after mass shooting events such as in San Bernardino, CA and  Roseburg, OR.

#3. The United States is far outpacing the rest of the developed world in total homicides, gun homicides and gun ownership

The most important takeaway. Not only is the gun ownership rate in the United States far above that of the rest of the developed world, the rate of total homicides also is shockingly higher than any other country. In fact, the homicide rate is even higher than you would expect for a country with as many guns as the US, lying far above the data trend line.

Additionally, the size and color of each dot indicates the proportion of homicides that were caused by guns. As we can see in the graphic, most of the homicides in the United States can be attributed to guns. This further validates the claim that the extreme prevalence of guns  is a direct influence on the high homicide rate in the United States.

Conclusion

As with every issue, the reality of gun policy is much more complex than many people and legislators realize. But the available data is clear: a higher rate of gun ownership shares a clear, undeniable correlation with a higher rate of homicide. With mass shootings and chronic violence continuing to plague American cities, how long can we afford to wait for change?

About the Data

Graphic produced using Processing 3.0.1 and Adobe Photoshop. Data available from The Guardian. 

 

*Military conscription required only for male citizens. Women may enlist in armed forces on a volunteer basis but comprise only a small minority (<2%) of total military.

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