Editor’s note: This article was originally written in 2015, a few years after the Sandy Hook shootings. Some of the statistics have changed but remain in line with the original thesis.
The question of gun control
Naturally, when a mass shooting occurs and the media bombards the public with anti-gun rhetoric, we become concerned and wonder, “Would the country indeed be safer if gun ownership was restricted – or more tightly controlled?” The truth is, with regards to the level of violence in a society, gun ownership levels have little or no influence on the rate of violent crime. This is easy to prove given readily available statistics.
Gun violence in America – the media withholds key truths
Each time a mass shooting occurs (or any other gun-related crime that attracts media attention), we are told the same thing: Americans own more guns than any other country and lead the world in mass shootings. Of course, the conclusion drawn from these statements is that more guns equate to more violence. Contrary to the relationship between weapons and violence portrayed by the media, statistics show quite clearly that guns do not equate to increased levels of violence. In fact, statistics from around the world show the opposite is true. High levels of gun ownership combined with sensible gun-control laws can lower the rate of violent crime in a society.
How gun ownership in the United States compares to the rest of the world
The United States owns more guns per person than any other country in the world. Stats vary but it is estimated that there is approximately one gun for every American. However, there are many other countries with similarly strong gun cultures including Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, Finland, France, and Germany. Sweden and Switzerland find themselves among the top three in gun ownership but contrary to what you would expect, have the lowest rates of intentional homicide in the world (.6 per 100K people vs. a worldwide average of 7 murders per 100K people). Make sure this statistic is held firm in your mind – their rate of intentional homicide is not just lower than average, but THE LOWEST RATE OF INTENTIONAL HOMICIDE ON THE PLANET. And they rank second and third in the world in gun ownership per capita.
The real reason Americans own more guns than any other country
The media would have you believe that the reason Americans possess so many guns is because they are a violent society. As evidenced by other countries with higher-than-average rates of gun ownership, this is a blatant untruth. What countries with high rates of gun ownership have in common is money – they are all 1st World Countries – and they can afford guns and other non-essential items.
Relaxed gun laws don’t necessarily result in high gun ownership rates
In America, gun laws are regulated at the state level and in most cases, are indeed more relaxed than gun laws in other countries. America’s constitutional second amendment is held in high regard and thus, lax licensing restrictions and the allowances for open/concealed carry of weapons are common in most states.
As you would expect, countries with lax gun laws naturally produce a high level of gun ownership – but again, only if the country has the disposable income to purchase expensive firearms. For instance, few countries other than the United States explicitly grant the right to bear arms in their constitution. The ones that do (e.g., Mexico, Haiti, Guatemala) are typically 3rd world countries and despite the constitutional right to bear arms, have extremely low gun ownership rates. Even though their constitutions guarantee the right to bear arms, they lack the wealth to purchase firearms.
How the rate of violence in the United States compares to the rest of the world
Statistics show that the U.S. is not nearly as violent as it is portrayed by the media. Rates of intentional homicide and violent assault are lower than the worldwide average. At about 4.7 homicides per 100,000 people each year, the U.S. is far below the planetwide average of 6.4/100k.
Still, when we narrow our focus to 1st World Countries only, the United States finds itself near the top of the list. If our rates of non-violent crimes are lower than most other 1st World Countries, why is our rate of violent homicide so unusually high? Contrary to what you may think, it has nothing to do with gun ownership levels. In fact, the United States is the *only* country with high gun ownership rates *and* a high rate of homicide. In other countries with high gun ownership rates, we find the opposite is true. Other 1st World Countries with high rates of gun ownership have some of the lowest homicide rates in the world.
Switzerland, 2nd to the U.S. in gun ownership, experiences a paltry .6 intentional deaths per 100,000 people (second column in the table above). As we run down the list of countries with the highest levels of gun ownership, we see the same time and time again. Homicide rates per 100,000 people in Sweden (.7), Norway (2.2), Finland (1.6), France (1), Germany (.8), Denmark (.8), and Canada (1.6) are far lower than the U.S. – despite having the highest gun-ownership rates in the world. It appears as if gun ownership has the opposite effect in other countries. What makes America different?
Impact of gun ownership rate to non-violent crimes
If the United States has prominent levels of intentional homicides, you would surmise the U.S. would rate high in non-violent crimes too. Not so. The U.S. has far lower non-violent crime rates than other 1st World Countries. Oddly, countries with high rates of gun ownership typically *do* see more non-violent crimes. This pattern is confirmed with countries such as Sweden, with nearly three-times the rate of assaults seen in other countries. The same found in Finland, Germany, and France as well. All experience higher rates of assaults and theft and in many instances, even higher rates of domestic burglaries than seen in the United States. Even when it comes to non-violent crimes in 1st world countries, the United States differs from other 1st World countries. Again, why is the U.S. so different from other 1st world countries?
Here’s what U.S. politicians don’t want you to know – how income and income inequality relate to gun ownership and violent crime rates
What I’m about to tell you sounds like science fiction, but studies have proven this relationship repeatedly. Nobody knows why it is true – only that it is a fact.
In general, countries with higher incomes (as measured by the per capita GDP) purchase more guns (where their laws allow) and have lower rates of intentional homicides. Conversely, countries with lower incomes purchase fewer guns (even when their laws allow it) but still seem to experience much higher levels of intentional homicide. This pattern (that a country’s income relates inversely to levels of murder) holds true in veritably all cases. However, the exceptions are interesting – and the United States is one of those rare exceptions.
This is where, as strange as it may seem, income inequality comes into play. Income inequality (measured by a coefficient known as the Gini index) and its relationship to violent crime is not new knowledge – government officials have known about this relationship for many years. Regardless of a country’s GDP, gun laws, and gun ownership rates – countries with high levels of income inequality experience higher levels of homicide. Make sure this is clear: THE ONLY STATISTICAL MEASUREMENT THAT IMPACTS A SOCIETY’S RATE OF VIOLENT HOMICIDE IS INCOME INEQUALITY. Levels of gun ownership produce no impact whatsoever.
The countries with the highest rates of income inequality on the planet include Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Chile, Brazil, Russia, and yes – the United States. Six of these seven countries produce the highest levels of intentional deaths on the planet and with the exception of the United States – have low levels of gun ownership per capita. Again, make sure this fact is clear: SIX OF THE SEVEN COUNTRIES WITH THE HIGHEST RATES OF INCOME INEQUALITY HAVE THE HIGHEST LEVELS OF VIOLENT HOMICIDE.
The numbers demonstrate this inexplicable fact – regardless of whether a country possesses many firearms or not, if income inequality exists, homicide rates will be high. Rates of gun ownership have no bearing on this fact.
Still not convinced?
Still not convinced? For further evidence that income equality, not gun ownership levels or gun laws influence the rate of violent crime, you must look no further than inside the U.S. border.
When last measured, the District of Colombia had the highest murder rate in the nation. At 21.8 intentional deaths per 100,000 people, it ranked more than twice as high as the next most dangerous state (Louisiana at 9.6 per 100,000 people). And guess what – DC has the *lowest* rate of gun ownership in the United States. In other words, in the U.S., the “state” with the tightest gun control laws and the lowest level of gun ownership has the *highest* murder rate in the country. Furthermore, when “states” are ranked according to income inequality (see Gini index ranking at bottom of article) – the District of Columbia finds itself at the top of the list – not above average or near the top – at the #1 position with the greatest rate of income inequality in the nation. Just like we see around the world, high rates of income inequality, regardless of how many guns are circulating in a state, produce high rates of violent homicide.
Other misconceptions about violence that statistics prove are patently false
How happiness relates to violence
There is a measurement called the Happiness Index. Published by the United Nations in the World Happiness Report, each country is ranked from 0 to 10 based on polls and fixed factors such as GDP per capita, life expectancy, level of corruption, perceived freedom to make choices, and perception of having someone to count on and generosity. Across the board, if a country is “happy” they will have a low rate of homicide and violent crime. The inverse, however, is not necessarily true.
Countries with low happiness index ratings, indicating a populace that is displeased or disadvantaged, do not always experience high levels of crime. Greece for instance, has a happiness index rating well below the planet-wide average yet despite a very high level of gun ownership (about 25% of its citizens own a gun), still has an extremely low rate of violent crime. In other words, if people are happy, they will remain peaceful but just because a country is in despair does not mean they will go about killing each other – even if they own plenty of guns.
How suicide rates relate to the happiness index, gun ownership, and other factors
The numbers show that just because a country considers themselves “unhappy”, does not mean their rate of suicide will be high. Rates of suicide seem to be impacted more by the country’s culture and religious beliefs rather than perceived happiness or even income inequality. Japan for example, has low gun ownership, extremely low levels of crime and a high GDP yet they rank 3rd in the world in the number of suicides per capita (only India and Russia have higher rates of suicide).
Japan is no exception to the rule either. Countries with high suicide rates tend to own fewer guns. Even more interesting, the four countries with the highest levels of suicide (Hong Kong, Japan, India, and Russia) have very low levels of gun ownership. In fact, Hong Kong and Japan have the *lowest* rate of gun ownership in the world yet still have extremely high levels of suicides. The level of gun ownership produces absolutely no impact on the country’s suicide rate.
What about all those automatic rifles used in mass shootings?
When you think about a mass shooting event, the first thing that comes to mind is a crazed gunman storming the building wearing a flak jacket and armed with an assault rifle (AR) with clips of ammo penned to his vest. This is a misconception propagated by the media.
Looking at the past fifty mass shooting events across the world, you will find a wide variety of weapons used including knives, hatchets, bombs, carpentry tools, and even a flame thrower. When listed in order of popularity among mass shooters, assault rifles are not even #2 on the list. Pistols are by far the most used weapon in mass shootings followed distantly by shotgun rifles. Assault rifles rank 3rd and are used in only 15% of the mass shootings (typically organized shootings by two or more people).
You don’t believe media and politicians portray levels of gun violence in a biased manner? The following was presented by BBC on December 4, 2015, the day after the San Bernardino mass shooting (which BTW, turned out to be a terrorist related crime). The chart compares the level of homicides in the United States vs. Canada, Australia, and the UK, countries with much tighter gun laws. The dark-green areas indicate gun-related homicides and suggests that the U.S. experiences high levels of homicides because of high levels of gun ownership.
But let us take out the gun-related homicides and look at homicides committed via other means. As you can see, the United States still ranks much higher in homicides – even without guns figured into the equation. This chart suggests that despite guns, America has a problem with violent homicide. If you want to make America safer, we need to direct our focus on the *reason* people kill each other, not how they do it.
Could taking Americans’ gun ownership rights be a dangerous proposition?
In the United States, gun ownership is protected by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The purpose behind the Second Amendment is quite clear and was included in the Constitution after America’s founding fathers recognized the importance of an armed militia balancing the power between government leadership and the people. If citizens possess weapons, they hold power, and their government can never subjugate them. But is this still a concern in a mature, modern-day society?
The rigor of my stance on gun rights derives directly from personal experience – the tales of two personal friends who immigrated to the United States from foreign countries. Both hailed from different countries, but each fled a country that, although once a free democracy, was later governed by a repressive regime. Both experienced, firsthand, their country’s conversion from a democracy to communism – and both were strong advocates of gun rights for one simple reason. They saw the first step taken by their respective countries (Ethiopia, Romania) to overpower the people was recension of their gun rights.
An even more dangerous proposition – restricting gun ownership in America
But what about simply restricting ownership, controlling the registration of guns, limits on the type of gun, or the amount of ammo the gun can hold? In these cases, restrictions serve the same purpose as outright banning gun ownership – they move some level of control from the hands of the citizen and place it in the hands of the government – a very dangerous situation.
If this sounds farfetched, don’t mistakenly believe that such a move by a government would happen overnight. Changes in gun laws would be introduced incrementally, in small steps, likely beginning with a national registry and limits on magazine capacity and weapon operation. Once power is sufficiently held by the government authorities, more controls can be introduced. This is precisely how Ethiopia and Romanian authorities removed guns from the hands of their citizens before placing them under a repressive regime. The right to own firearms is profoundly more important than many people realize.
In summary – listen to the numbers, not the media/politicians/advocates
The relationship between gun ownership, violence, crime, and happiness of citizens is straight forward. In summary, the numbers are concrete and tell us:
Rich countries have more guns
Where laws permit, rich countries own more guns per capita. They also own more cars, televisions, and computers. In modern-day societies, guns are no longer a necessity – they are a luxury item. Those that can afford goods beyond basic necessities will purchase, among other luxury goods – guns.
Gun ownership has no impact on the rate of suicides
Similarly, common sense tells us that countries with the highest levels of unhappiness will produce the highest rates of suicide. This, however, is irrespective of gun ownership. In fact, the countries with the highest rates of suicide also have the most restrictive gun laws and thus, low rates of gun ownership.
High income inequality, more homicides, but less crime overall
When the policies of a country present an unfair advantage to higher class citizens, and the wealth a country generates is not shared equitably with all workers, citizens feel repressed. Feeling helpless and outnumbered, citizens from richer countries will seek to balance the gap while lashing out via violent actions. People in poorer countries will not resort to stealing– there is nothing worth stealing. However, as seen with their richer counterparts, they will lash out with violence.
The United States leads in gun ownership and mass shootings – but that’s about it
There is no argument – the United States leads the world in gun ownership and mass shootings. But it also leads the world in television ownership, video game ownership, and automobile ownership. That the U.S. leads in shootings should come as no surprise – we own more guns. Recognize however, that countries with magnitude higher rates of homicide rates kill each other with their weapon of choice – guns or not.
All other U.S. measurements are right in line with the rest of the world. For instance, we have an average happiness index (not the greatest, but not the worst either). Despite what the media portrays, statistics show that the United States has below average rates of crime and violent deaths.
Still, statistics show the United States stands in direct contrast with most nations in one critical respect – extremely high GDP and income inequality (measured by high Gini scores). The only countries with lower rates of income inequality are third-world countries such as Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, and Mexico.
As pointed out above, countries with high rates of income inequality will see citizens lash out in anger. Several studies have proven that income inequality and violence are inextricably tied together. In the United States, citizens have traditionally accepted the level of income inequality if they believed the system was fair and that with hard work, they could eventually succeed. This attitude has changed dramatically in recent decades provoking radical acts of violence. And it has nothing to do with guns.
Is there a cure to mass shootings?
If statistics show that gun ownership has little or no impact on the number of mass shootings nor homicide rates in general, what is the cause of America’s overwhelming mass shooting incidents? How can this outbreak be curtailed? American neurosurgeon and professor at Emory University School of Medicine, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, says we spend too much time and energy “treating the symptoms as opposed to the root cause of a problem”. Using a medicinal treatment analogy, according to Dr. Gupta,
“Treating a serious bacterial infection with anti-inflammatories and pain medications can make a person feel better. And with gun violence, more stringent background checks and increased mental health resources can make a dent as well. Neither of these approaches, however, gets rid of the core problem, which is violence itself.”
He asks, “What is the antibiotic for violence?” According to Gupta, studies show that “interrupters” are key and mass shootings can be curtailed by having interrupters looking for people who may be isolated or marginalized.
“In many of the recent tragedies, the shooters were described as loners, full of emotional pain and who, at times, were blatantly antisocial. Most of society simply ignores those people, further marginalizing them. The interrupters would do the opposite; they would target those people. Thinking of this epidemic of preventable deaths as an infection that can be diagnosed, treated, and perhaps cured, I feel more hopeful than I have been in a long time.”
Gun ownership, homicide, and income inequality
The following lists countries sorted by homicide rate per 100,000 people. Countries at the top of the list have higher rates of homicide per capita (red coloring). Notice that countries with a higher rate of income inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient, second column, and shaded in red) produce higher rates of homicide. And despite claims by politicians and the media, the level of gun ownership produces no impact and in fact, countries with high rates of gun ownership (see Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland at bottom of list) have the lowest homicide rates on the planet. Likewise, in the chart, you can see that the United States high homicide rate coincides with its high rate of income inequality.
List of U.S. states by Gini coefficient of income inequality
The Gini index, a coefficient used to measure income inequality, for the United States as a whole is 0.411. The list below shows states ranked by Gini index. States at the top of the list have more income inequality while states at the bottom of the list have the highest levels of income inequality. Some states are noted with their “violent crime ranking” taken from the US Census for 2010. Note states with lower rates of violent crime are states with the greatest income equality (see top of list) while states with the highest rates of violent crime are the states with the worst income inequality (bottom of list).
|0.419 (44th in violent crime in US)
|0.423 (43rd in violent crime in US)
|0.425 (48th in violent crime in US)
|0.468 (2nd highest violent crime rate in US)
|0.474 (5th highest violent crime rate in US)
|0.475 (4th highest violent crime rate in US)
|District of Columbia
|0.532 (highest violent crime rate in US)