Whenever a mass shooting occurs, a debate about gun violence ensues. An often-cited counter to the point about the United States’ high rates of gun homicides is that people in other countries kill one another at the same rate using different types of weapons. It’s not true.
Compared to other countries with similar levels of development or socioeconomic status, the United States has exceptional homicide rates, and it’s driven by gun violence.
Here are the data:
Homicide rates in the U.S. and peer countries by weapon type, 2013
In a 2013 article for The Atlantic online that compared gun deaths in U.S. cities to some of the deadliest places in the world, the authors created a map, below, that shows Atlanta has the same gun murder rate as South Africa, Detroit as El Salvador, Phoenix equal to Mexico’s gun homicide rate:
Another screen grab, below, compares gun homicide rates in the U.S. with countries that frequently make headlines for conflict-related violence (Afghanistan, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Pakistan).
The U.S. has higher rates of homicides from guns than Pakistan. At 4.5 deaths per 100,000 people, the U.S. rates aren’t much lower than gun homicide rates in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (5.2 deaths per 100,000 people). Annually, the U.S. has about two fewer gun homicide deaths per 100,000 people than Iraq, which has 6.5 deaths per 100,000.
Firearm homicide rates in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the United States and Pakistan, 2010
Compared to certain countries known for their high crime rates, such as Jamaica, Russia, South Africa and Kenya, the U.S. had the second-highest rate of gun homicide deaths after Jamaica (view data online).
Although the U.S. stands out for its high rates of homicide firearm deaths, its rates look small compared to certain Latin American countries. The following screen grab indicates that El Salvador, Colombia and Honduras had the highest rates of firearm homicides in the world in 2010.
Firearm homicide rates in Latin America and the United States, 2010
Another issue that gets less attention is how many people die from firearms accidentally. Again, the U.S. has much higher rates of unintentional death from firearms compared to other countries.
Unintentional firearm death rates in the U.S. and peer countries, 2013
It doesn’t have to be this way. Our peer countries don’t have the same homicide and accidental gun death problems that we have in the United States.
After a mass shooting that killed 35 people in Australia in 1996, the conservative government enacted laws banning automatic and semi-automatic rifles and pump-action guns and initiated a nationwide gun-buyback program, as described in this NBC News article.
Switzerland, frequently cited as a country where widespread gun ownership makes people safer, has stricter gun regulations than the U.S. The Swiss government has placed limits on gun ownership and makes gun owners renew their permits 14 times a year.
One inspiring example comes from Cali, Colombia, and highlights the value of using data to identify risk factors for homicide. In the early 1990s, the mayor of Cali decided to use data to improve health outcomes in his city. A physician and epidemiologist by training, Dr. Rodrigo Guerrero Velasco set up a firearm death tracking system to identify different risk factors driving these trends. Guerrero Velasco and his colleagues found that more than half of Cali’s homicide victims were intoxicated. Also, analysis of the data revealed that homicides were more likely to involve young people and occur on holiday weekends, weekends following paydays, and election days.
Based on these findings, Guerrero Velasco implemented several interventions to address these risk factors, such as limiting the hours alcohol could be sold, imposing curfews for individuals under 18 on the weekends, and imposing short-term gun bans on select weekends and election days when homicides were most likely to occur. According to an academic study based on an analysis of the city’s gun death database, homicides declined from a high of 124 per 100,000 in 1994 to 86 per 100,000 in 1997. Another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and co-authored by University of Washington epidemiologists found that homicide death rates were 14 percent lower than expected during periods when gun bans were imposed in Cali.
Homicide rates in Cali, Colombia, 1983-1998
Note: Figure taken from paper entitled “La epidemiología de los homicidios en Cali, 1993-1998: seis años de un modelo poblacional” published in the Pan American Journal of Public Health
In 2011, Guerrero Velasco was re-elected to a second term as mayor of Cali. In a Sept. 15, 2015, article for Scientific American, Guerrero Velasco wrote that renewed efforts stemmed gun violence. “Cali’s homicide rate of 83 in 2012 dropped to 62 in 2014. This pattern has continued; the number of homicides in the first trimester of 2015 is less than in the same period in any of the past 12 years.”
Instead of using local data to identify local solutions, the U.S. may largely have to rely on studies done in other countries to gain insight into ways to curb gun violence. Even though Obama lifted a 17-year-old ban on U.S. federal funding for gun violence research in 2013, a congressional ban on funding for this research remains in place, with Congress renewing the ban after nine people were killed in a Charleston, S.C., church.
As a society, we must take serious actions now to curb the threat of firearm-related deaths. Let’s look to other countries for inspiration for what works.