The ReThink Blog

Starting from scratch in politics and science


Rethinking Gun Control, Part 5: International Variations

An AK-47 in Africa
For better or worse, guns are obligatory throughout the known world
In the last exercise, I focused on how different states have tackled gun control and whether or not a pattern emerges. This time, I'd like to apply the same methodology to different countries, in the interests of seeing if there is a pattern on a more global scale. Naturally, there are a host of variables to consider--too numerous and complex to make for simple talking points--but in the grand scheme, if I want to make general conclusions about the success of various approaches to firearms, I should try to narrow it down to a few basics.

To begin, I assembled a list of the top 25 countries in terms of sheer population size. I did this because the smaller the country, the more noisy and unreliable the data. For example, for the most recent year on record, the tiny island nation of Nauru has an intentional homicide rate per capita that is more than double that of the United States, but the actual number of intentional homicides in Nauru is just one for that entire year. Additionally, when dealing with gun control as it relates to the United States, it is helpful to look at nations with larger populations, since the United States is such a nation. If we want to discuss ways to control guns among large populations, statistics about the effectiveness of laws for small populations aren't particularly meaningful.

I then assembled the most reliable firearm homicide statistics I could find for these countries, using the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Since I've been using the years 1999 through 2010 as my baseline thus far, I continued to do so here, taking the average per capita mortality rates for intentional homicides (it was simpler, for this exercise, to exclude suicide rates and law enforcement-related deaths) from the available data. However, in 10 out of the top 25--most notably in China and Russia--reliable statistics are simply not to be found, usually due to a lack of international cooperation or record keeping. Thus, I stuck with a list of 15 countries and their per capita firearm homicide rates:

Average Firearm Homicides by Country

From here, I identified three metrics worth consideration: (1) the population density of each country, (2) the firearm ownership rates of each country, and (3) the strictness or leniency of the gun laws on the books in each country. In the graphs below, I kept the countries in the same order as above, a descending rank of homicide rates, in the hopes of identifying a significant and obvious trend.

Population Density by Country

Four of the top five countries have relatively low densities, while the highest densities all fall somewhere in the middle. If density were a significant factor in homicide rates, one would expect the trend to be more dramatic. The country with the highest density by far, Bangladesh, is flanked on both sides by two of the lowest density countries, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the United States. While I would not be willing to wholly dismiss population density as a factor, the data does not appear to indicate a connection.

Privately Owned Firearms by Country

One would think--as indeed I assumed before even assembling the data--that gun mortality rates would strongly correlate with gun ownership rates. If more people own guns, surely more people are getting killed by them. However, as the above graph shows, this is simply not true. The United States obviously stands high above the rest of the world in terms of private firearm ownership, but four nations with much lower ownership rates have higher firearm homicide rates. Indeed, the second and third highest countries in terms of ownership, France and Germany, are near the very bottom in terms of firearm homicides. It is counter-intuitive, to say the least, but judging by the above data, there is no clear correlation between the two variables.

This leaves us contemplating the gun laws of each of the fifteen countries listed above. The thing that surprised me most was how little the gun laws differ among these countries. All but the United States require firearm registration and strict licensing for ownership. The United States and Mexico are the only two countries that acknowledge a right to keep and bear arms in their constitutions, and fully automatic weapons are pretty much prohibited across the board, with a few narrow exceptions. To get a feel for what I'm talking about, let's look at South Africa and Japan, the countries with the highest and lowest firearm homicide rates.

South Africa maintains an incredibly strict set of firearm licensing requirements, and if you wish to apply for a firearm license, you must undergo an extreme background check that includes a competency test, a home inspection, and about two years worth of red tape. Fully automatic firearms are prohibited, and semi-automatic weapons have a stricter set of guidelines than other firearms. All guns are registered, and all gun sales are recorded, tracked, and monitored. Despite all these heavy regulations--not the strictest of the fifteen but certainly up there--South Africa's firearm homicide rate is heads and tails above the others. It is plausible, though speculative, to argue that South Africa's violent recent history and culture of hatred are the dominant factors at play.

Words fail me
Japan may have the lowest firearm homicide rate, but it's still got everybody else beat on the wtf scale
Japan, on the other hand, has the lowest intentional firearm homicide rate, so low that it can be rounded to 0.0 deaths per 100,000 citizens. Its gun control laws are downright draconian, with all forms of weaponry strictly outlawed, private ownership permitted only for sporting, and a licensing regimen that makes South Africa look breezy. Given that Japan is also an island, it makes sense that such intense gun control would result in such a low homicide rate.

Still, the trend is, again, not terribly obvious. Germany also nears the top in terms of the strictness of its gun control and nears the bottom in its homicide rate, but at the same time, it has relatively high rates of gun ownership, a fact that defies generalization. Vietnam only allows its citizens to own shotguns, and yet its homicide rate is smack dab in the middle. The United States has one of the loosest set of gun control laws on the books, if not the lowest, with no registration and very little licensing required, and yet there are four out of the other fourteen countries on this list that dwarf its homicide numbers, most of them by quite a wide margin. It would be tempting to think that relative isolation is a factor, given that Japan is such a success story, but the Philippines is also an island nation, and its homicide rate is higher than the United States.

Therefore, we are again faced with a frustrating lack of any obvious trend. If you take the United States out of the equation, there is no correlation between the strictness of gun control laws and the ownership of guns, and even with the United States included, there is no clear correlation between firearm homicide rates, population density, gun ownership, or, most vexing of all, the strictness of gun control law. My quest for a trend once again ends in disappointment, and I am forced to consider that there are simply too many factors involved to make any blanket statements on the matter. With that in mind, as I go forward, I may have to leave the statistics behind and focus on more general principles and political considerations.

-e. magill 10/22/2013


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