To understand why there is so much gun violence in the U.S., we must look at the rest of the developed world.
Published on LinkedIn Pulse December 10, 2014
Originally published here on American Gun Laws thanks to Jason Rogers
Other articles in this series:
In trying to understand why America has such a bad rate of gun violence in comparison with other countries of similar socio-economic development, I want to begin by quoting from this article from The Atlantic:
According to 2008 figures compiled by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the U.S. homicide rate for 2010 is 5.1 per 100,000 people. Only Estonia’s is higher, at 6.3. The next most violent country is Finland, which has a homicide rate of 2.5, half that of the U.S. The remaining 28 developed countries are even lower, with an average of 1.1 homicides per 100,000 people.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime compiles statistics on crime around the world, and even though its violent crime rates have been declining for roughly two decades, the U.S. still has much higher rates of gun violence compared to other developed nations.
All countries have people. All countries have mentally disturbed people. All countries have mental health systems. All countries have laws. And all countries have guns.
So why does the U.S. have such a high number of gun murders, and, more importantly, why does it have almost the highest rate of gun murders compared to every other developed country? Our people? Our number of crazy people? Our mental health system? Our laws? Our guns?
Let’s look at each of those five factors.
Are there things about our people and our culture that contribute to this? Clearly, yes, but these things are extremely hard to quantify and explain. America does have a violent history and strong senses of individuality and adventurism compared with many other countries. We also, statistically speaking, have higher violent crime rates and pretty much the highest (depending on the category, we win in many) poverty rates compared with almost all or all other developed countries. And within the poverty statistics, when we do come in first, we leave the competition far behind. Moore poor, and poorer, people mean more instances of less stable lives, more desperation, and, generally, more crime. These could very well all be contributing factors, and are issues that should be understood, analyzed, and addressed. But from a public policy perspective, they are perhaps the most daunting: sure, eliminating poverty in the U.S. would be great, but that is hardly a near-term practical goal. Understanding violence as a factor in American history, and the effect of a strong sense of individuality, would provide useful information but studies on these subjects would not by themselves produce any workable, measurable policy results. Still, within the U.S., high poverty, low numbers of college graduates, and a high margin of votes for McCain over Obama were among the best indicators of a state with higher rates of gun deaths, whereas states with low poverty, having more college graduates, and a high margin of votes for Obama over McCain were among the best indicators of states with the lowest rates of gun deaths. We will get to more about our culture later, though, when we talk about guns. When we get to the laws section, however, we will come back to this dataset.
Do we have more crazy people than most other developed countries? That is a very difficult question to answer. It depends how you define crazy, and how accurate would that measure be anyway, in a country with notoriously, uniquely high heath care costs where cost is a main reason people avoid treatment for severe mental disorders? It is not likely that among other developed nations, the U.S. somehow has such a hugely higher percentage of mentally ill people that somehow that would explain our higher rate of violence. Moving on…
Mental Health System
Our spending on the issue is within the same range as other developed countries as a percentage of our overall healthcare spending. Yet, as the above section raises the logical question, do we leave higher rates of the mentally ill untreated here in the U.S.? From a mental health perspective, this is an important question to ask, but not from a perspective of trying reduce gun deaths and gun violence. Why so? Even if all mentally ill people were prevented from committing violent crimes, since they only commit 4% of the nation’s overall violent crime, this would barely affect the overall level of violent crime in the U.S. In fact, they are at least eleven times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than the general population. So the idea that fixing the mental health system in the U.S. should be the first, or a major, step towards reducing gun violence is not based on any serious understanding of the data.
Here is where things are drastically more telling. Going back to the dataset from the “people” section above, it is quite interesting to note that within the U.S. the states with the lowest gun death rates generally had much more restrictive regulation of guns than states that had much higher rates of gun deaths, which had fewer laws restricting the purchase and use of guns. In fact, having those gun laws or not were some of the best indicators of how bad a gun death rate was in any given state. Other similar studieshave found this correlation as well, and though it is not necessarily a case of direct cause and immediate effect, it is hard to discount that gun laws play some major factor in a state-to-state comparison, given the wide disparity in gun death rates between states with, and without, restrictive gun-control legislation. Critics of gun laws point to Chicago, which has extremely restrictive gun laws but has horrific gun violence; yet this argument is poorly constructed because it ignores the fact that over one-quarter of all the guns seized in Chicago came from the immediate surrounding area, that many guns come from farther away, and that much of Illinois and other nearby states have very lax gun laws that allow these guns to flow into the city. To isolate one locality and ignore the surrounding area is simply not effective or meaningful policy analysis. Internationally speaking, as one article noted, “[o]ther countries all over the world play the same video games and have the same mental health problems as the United States, but manage to avoid a sky-high gun murder rate and frequent public shooting massacres.” The same article offers an analysis of several other countries’ gun-control laws. The Council on Foreign Relations also offers a sample analysis of other countries’ laws and how they differ from U.S. laws, each country with stricter laws and a vastly lower rate of gun deaths than the U.S. The evidence shows that time and time again, more gun laws in the developed world mean lower gun death rates by large margins.
Finally, this is perhaps the starkest data set: in developed countries, the data is clear: having guns means more gun deaths. By far, we have the highest amount of guns per person of any country on earth. It’s not even close. Here in America, we have 88 guns for every 100 people. That means we have 50% of the world’s guns even though we are just 5% of the global population. The silver medal goes to Yemen, with a measly 54 guns per 100 compared with the gold-medal-winner America, and other all-stars in the top ten are Serbia and Iraq. All three of those countries are now experiencing, or have experienced in the last few decades, war on their soil, whereas the U.S., having last fought a major war on its soil in 1865 (if you don’t count chasing down Native Americans), does not have that excuse. Perhaps the way we think of, idolize, and use guns, too, is a major factor, considering that Switzerland has high levels of gun ownership (since adult Swiss males are required to train with and possess guns as part of the Swiss Army, which functions like a citizens’ militia) and that Switzerland has but only a tiny fraction of the gun death rate that the U.S. has. Still, there is an increasing trend that these Swiss weapons are not kept at home but at various weapons storage facilities so they are not available right away, say, in a moment of anger or passion. So American gun culture and the high level of firearms per person in the U.S. would certainly have to be major factors explaining the high U.S. gun death rate.
All in all, sure, cultural factors seem to play a role, probably a significant one, in our national gun violence tragedy. We very likely do not have more crazy people to a degree significant enough to explain our problem that way, nor can our mental health system be a major factor if only 4% of violent crime is committed by those with mental disorders. Laws, well, clearly there are major differences between states in the U.S. with stricter and more lax laws, and between the U.S. and other developed countries with stricter laws. And there is a major mountain of statistics showing a link to less deaths and tougher gun laws. Finally, add the fact that we have so many guns per capita, more so than in any other country on planet earth and almost 63% more than #2 Yemen, and, well, it seems pretty clear. Sure, our pro-gun culture and how we vote politically certainly affect us: deep Republican-voting red states tend to have far more gun violence. People living in Democratic-voting blue states, because of their politics, are less likely to idolize gun culture, certainly, and that’s a factor not to be ignored. What this means is that political awareness and political will are essential to reducing gun violence. And the facts show that along with low political will among the population to tackle gun-control, more guns and laxer laws are the main factors that contribute to gun violence that we can do something about in the near future. We cannot fix poverty and lack of education, the other major indicators, overnight, but we sure can change our gun laws and bring the statistic of 88 guns per 100 people in this country down. But this requires political will and a culture willing to face facts. With the political will, good laws, and less guns, we can save lives not in a generation, but now.