If there is one argument about gun violence which has taken on a life of its own within the gun violence prevention (GVP) movement, it’s the idea that the U.S. has a much higher level of lethal violence because we have so many more guns. The most recent research in this respect was published several years ago by two eminent GVP scholars who compared the rate of intentional mortality injuries in the U.S. to the same injury category in 23 other ‘wealthy’ nations and found the U.S. rate to be much higher than anywhere else.
Here is their basic finding: “U.S. homicide rates were 7 times higher than in other high-income countries, driven by a gun homicide rate that was 25.2 times higher.” Wow.
It’s always tricky to make cross-national comparisons when it comes to gun violence because often the data required to develop and study a problem just isn’t there. Or if it is there, sometimes the researcher won’t let anyone have access to the information, so it’s as if the numbers don’t exist even if they do. A case in point is a celebrated article by Adam Lankford, who claims to have done a cross-national comparison of 171 countries and determined that the U.S. rate of mass gun violence is much higher than anywhere else because Americans own so many guns. But nowhere in his paper or downloadable from the journal in which it appeared can we even view the figures which he allegedly used.
The good news about the study which compared mortality in the U.S. to other high-income countries, however, is that all the data either accompanies the article itself or is referenced to other published works (Small Arms Survey, World Bank, et. al.) Which brings me to a much more concerning problem with this research, namely, the decision to base murder rates on overall population totals, which could distort the whole issue of violence caused by guns.
In fact, there are two issues which need to be addressed if we are going to make a valid comparison between the United States versus everywhere else. First, the fact that a country’s civilian population owns a lot of guns doesn’t really explain any causal connection to gun violence unless we know what kinds of guns are actually owned. Of the 24 ‘wealthy’ countries whose violence rates were compared, the United States is the only country that grants its residents more or less free access to handguns, which happen to account for at least 80% or more of all intentional gun deaths. In terms of understanding relative gun risk, counting Grandpa’s rusted old shotgun sitting in the basement doesn’t explain anything at all.
The more important issue, however, is whether we should be comparing gun-violence rates from an epidemiological perspective (i.e., creating an injury rate on overall population, the way we create a rate to understand the risk of an infectious disease.) By using overall population counts to compute gun violence rates, we are assuming that a gun injury is just like any medical event which causes an injury, but it’s not. Intentional gun injuries can only occur if someone makes a series of conscious, calculated decisions to get their hands on a gun, load a gun, carry a gun, and use the gun in an improper or illegal way. There is no other medical event of any kind, even other intentional, physical injuries, that require so much forethought and work.
Know what happens when we compare gun violence rates between wealthy countries using the number of civilian-owned guns found in each nation-state? The U.S. rate is no longer 7.5 times higher than any other country; in fact it is right smack in the middle of the average rate for all 24 ‘wealthy’ states.
It would be folly to argue that we don’t have a serious and protracted problem with gun violence. Of course, we do. But when we compare gun violence on the basis of ownership rates, we discover that the U.S. may not be such a violent place.