Proponents of strict gun-control laws often mention the high rateof violence in America, although actual figures are rarely given. Itwould be easy to conclude that we have the highest homicide rate of anynation, and a high suicide rate as well.
Even well informed persons may accept these notions as establishedfacts, but in reality they are far from correct. The accompanying tablegives suicide and homicide rates per 100,000 population for each nation.It is modified from the “Demographic Yearbook 1981,” publishedby the United Nations Statistical Office, New York, in 1983. Thefigures are for the most recent available year, usually 1979 or 1980.
The U.S. homicide figure is for 1982 and is taken from “Crime inthe United STates 1982,” published by the Federal Bureau ofInvestigation and reprinted in the F.B.I.
Law Enforcement Bulletin,October, 1983. The U.N. homicide figures run a bit higher than those from theF.B.I. because the U.N.
includes justifiable homicide and war, but thefigures are close enough for accurate comparisons of nations. The U.S.suicide figure is also for 1982 and is taken from “Monthly VitalStatistics Report,” October 5,1983, published by the Department ofHealth and Human Services.
In some cases (for example, East Germany)suicide and homicide figures are no longer released, so it was necessaryto go back as far as 1970 for the most recent figures. Of course, theaccuracy of the figures depends on the veracity of each government.Some nations do not release any mortality data. Hence the U.S.
S.R., thePeople’s Republic of China, and many other nations are notincluded. What can we conclude from these figures? In regard to suiciderates, it is obvious that the U.S.
A. lies in the middle range, with manynations–including those in Eastern and Western Europe and Japan–havingconsiderably higher rates. Compared with our rate of 12.
0, Hungary hasa suicide rate of 44.9, Denmark 31.6, and East Germany 30.5. Nationswith strict gun-control laws may have suicide rates that are high(Hungary), intermediate (Japan), or low (England).
Moreover, nationswith relatively mild laws (U.S.A.
) may have rates similar to those withstrict laws (Norway), while nations similar in strictness of laws mayhave rates that are quite different (Norway and Denmark). Clearly there is no relation between suicide rates and gun-controllaws. Indeed, it would even be possible to claim that nations withstrict gun-control laws tend to have high suicide rates. Such a claimwould ignore many relevant facts. For example, Latin American nationstend to have low suicide rates, but this is almost surely due toreligious and cultural factors, not lax gun laws. Eastern European nations tend to have high suicide rates, but hisis probably due to the drab, hopeless life under Communism, not strictgun laws.
Nevertheless, a claim that strict gun laws cause suicides isno more illogical, and no less supported by data, than is theoften-heard claim that strict gun laws prevent homicides. Is there a relation between suicide rates and homicide rates?Nations with low suicide rates may have low (Greece), intermediate(Venezuela), or high (Mexico) homicide rates. Nations with high suiciderates may have low (Switzerland), intermediate (Sweden), or high (EastGermany) homicide rates. There is a suggestion of an inverse relation,but at least we can say that suicide and homicide rates surely are notpositively correlated. This being so, strict gun-control laws certainlycannot reduce both suicide and homicide rates, as some have tried toclaim. Adding suicide and homicide rates to get a “violent deathrate” yields interesting results. Judged in this way, the U.
S.A.is less violent that 21 other nations, including Austria, Denmark,France, West Germany, Sweden, and even Switzerland. To be sure, we haveroom for improvement, but clearly this is not the “nationaldisgrace” that some profess to believe. When it comes to homicide rates, the picture is a bit less clear.The U.
S.A. does have a relatively high rate of 9.1, but there are 17nations that admit to higher rates. Neglecting El Salvador, where acivil war is going on, this leaves 16 nations with reported homiciderates higher than ours: Argentina, Bahamas, Chile, Colombia, Egypt,Fiji, East Germany, Guatemala, Guyana, Mexico, Philippines, Puerto Rico,South Africa (nonwhite), Sweden, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. Do homicide rates have a relation to strictness of gun-controllaws? Some nations with strict laws indeed have low rates (England,Australia, New Zealand, and Japan).
But other nations with strict lawshave high rates. For example, would you rather be caught carrying a gunillegally by police in the U.S.
A., or by those in Argentina, Chile,Egypt, East Germany, Mexico, or South Africa? Moreover, nations thatdiffer widely in gun-control laws and in other respects may have similarhomicide rates (U.S.A., Fiji, Sweden, Venezuela), while nations that aresimilar in gun-control laws may have rates that are quite different(England, Scotland, Australia, Canada, and Northern Ireland).
In order to establish a relation between strict gun-control lawsand low homicide rates, a statistician would first affect the homiciderate, such as age, race, and social, economic, religious, cultural andpolitical characteristics of the various nations. This has never beendone, and I doubt it can be. There simply is not enough known aboutthese factors to make accurate corrections. For example, the averageage of the U.S. population is rising as the “baby boom”generation grows older. This should result in a fall in the homiciderate, because most homicides are committed by young men.
In fact, theU.S. homicide rate was 10.
2 in 1980, its highest point in this century.The rate was 9.8 in 1981 and 9.1 in 1982. Suppose a new gun-control lawhad been passed in 1980. Its supporters would point with pride to the11 percent drop in the homicide rate, blissfully unaware that it wouldhave occurred without their efforts. The recent improvement in thehomicide rate may be due in part to stricter anticrime laws andattitudes, but those of us who favor such laws should not fall into thesame error. We too must take demographic and other factors into accountbefore we take credit or assess blame for changes in the homicide rate.
To take another example, why is the homicide rate almost eighttimes higher in Canada than in England? Is it because of Canadian gunlaws, which are not quite the same as those in England, or because ofpolitical ethnic, racial, economic, religious, cultural, or agedifferences between the two nations? To pick out one factor whileignoring all the others may make a debating point, but it is badstatistics and bad logic. To use such a poor argument to influencelegislation is equally illogical. Worse, it distracts attention fromlegitimate efforts to reduce crime. Reality is often more complex and confusing than a comfortablefantasy, but we must face reality before we can hope to influence it forthe better.
In the fantasy world, the U.S.A. has the highest homiciderate in the world, and a high suicide rate in addition. This notionprovides a welcome excuse for self-flagellation to those who believethat most of the evil in the world comes from America. Nations withstrict gun-control laws invariably have low rates of homicide andsuicide.
So the answer is simple–pass stricter gun-control laws. Inthe real world, on the other hand, the figures are confusing, and thereare no simple solutions to complex problems. There is no demonstrablerelation between gun-control laws and suicide or homicide rates invarious nations. The U.
S.A. actually has a lower rate of violent deaththan some European nations that are held up as models of order. But ifwe can face these facts, we will be able to seek real solutions to realproblems.