Proponents of strict gun-control laws often mention the high rate
of violence in America, although actual figures are rarely given. It
would be easy to conclude that we have the highest homicide rate of any
nation, and a high suicide rate as well.
Even well informed persons may accept these notions as established
facts, but in reality they are far from correct. The accompanying table
gives suicide and homicide rates per 100,000 population for each nation.
It is modified from the “Demographic Yearbook 1981,” published
by the United Nations Statistical Office, New York, in 1983. The
figures are for the most recent available year, usually 1979 or 1980.
The U.S. homicide figure is for 1982 and is taken from “Crime in
the United STates 1982,” published by the Federal Bureau of
Investigation and reprinted in the F.B.I. Law Enforcement Bulletin,
The U.N. homicide figures run a bit higher than those from the
F.B.I. because the U.N. includes justifiable homicide and war, but the
figures are close enough for accurate comparisons of nations. The U.S.
suicide figure is also for 1982 and is taken from “Monthly Vital
Statistics Report,” October 5,1983, published by the Department of
Health and Human Services. In some cases (for example, East Germany)
suicide and homicide figures are no longer released, so it was necessary
to go back as far as 1970 for the most recent figures. Of course, the
accuracy of the figures depends on the veracity of each government.
Some nations do not release any mortality data. Hence the U.S.S.R., the
People’s Republic of China, and many other nations are not
What can we conclude from these figures? In regard to suicide
rates, it is obvious that the U.S.A. lies in the middle range, with many
nations–including those in Eastern and Western Europe and Japan–having
considerably higher rates. Compared with our rate of 12.0, Hungary has
a suicide rate of 44.9, Denmark 31.6, and East Germany 30.5. Nations
with strict gun-control laws may have suicide rates that are high
(Hungary), intermediate (Japan), or low (England). Moreover, nations
with relatively mild laws (U.S.A.) may have rates similar to those with
strict laws (Norway), while nations similar in strictness of laws may
have rates that are quite different (Norway and Denmark).
Clearly there is no relation between suicide rates and gun-control
laws. Indeed, it would even be possible to claim that nations with
strict gun-control laws tend to have high suicide rates. Such a claim
would ignore many relevant facts. For example, Latin American nations
tend to have low suicide rates, but this is almost surely due to
religious and cultural factors, not lax gun laws.
Eastern European nations tend to have high suicide rates, but his
is probably due to the drab, hopeless life under Communism, not strict
gun laws. Nevertheless, a claim that strict gun laws cause suicides is
no more illogical, and no less supported by data, than is the
often-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 suicide
rates may have low (Switzerland), intermediate (Sweden), or high (East
Germany) homicide rates. There is a suggestion of an inverse relation,
but at least we can say that suicide and homicide rates surely are not
positively correlated. This being so, strict gun-control laws certainly
cannot reduce both suicide and homicide rates, as some have tried to
Adding suicide and homicide rates to get a “violent death
rate” 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 have
room for improvement, but clearly this is not the “national
disgrace” 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 17
nations that admit to higher rates. Neglecting El Salvador, where a
civil war is going on, this leaves 16 nations with reported homicide
rates 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-control
laws? Some nations with strict laws indeed have low rates (England,
Australia, New Zealand, and Japan). But other nations with strict laws
have high rates. For example, would you rather be caught carrying a gun
illegally by police in the U.S.A., or by those in Argentina, Chile,
Egypt, East Germany, Mexico, or South Africa? Moreover, nations that
differ widely in gun-control laws and in other respects may have similar
homicide rates (U.S.A., Fiji, Sweden, Venezuela), while nations that are
similar 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 laws
and low homicide rates, a statistician would first affect the homicide
rate, such as age, race, and social, economic, religious, cultural and
political characteristics of the various nations. This has never been
done, and I doubt it can be. There simply is not enough known about
these factors to make accurate corrections. For example, the average
age of the U.S. population is rising as the “baby boom”
generation grows older. This should result in a fall in the homicide
rate, because most homicides are committed by young men. In fact, the
U.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 law
had been passed in 1980. Its supporters would point with pride to the
11 percent drop in the homicide rate, blissfully unaware that it would
have occurred without their efforts. The recent improvement in the
homicide rate may be due in part to stricter anticrime laws and
attitudes, but those of us who favor such laws should not fall into the
same error. We too must take demographic and other factors into account
before we take credit or assess blame for changes in the homicide rate.
To take another example, why is the homicide rate almost eight
times higher in Canada than in England? Is it because of Canadian gun
laws, which are not quite the same as those in England, or because of
political ethnic, racial, economic, religious, cultural, or age
differences between the two nations? To pick out one factor while
ignoring all the others may make a debating point, but it is bad
statistics and bad logic. To use such a poor argument to influence
legislation is equally illogical. Worse, it distracts attention from
legitimate efforts to reduce crime.
Reality is often more complex and confusing than a comfortable
fantasy, but we must face reality before we can hope to influence it for
the better. In the fantasy world, the U.S.A. has the highest homicide
rate in the world, and a high suicide rate in addition. This notion
provides a welcome excuse for self-flagellation to those who believe
that most of the evil in the world comes from America. Nations with
strict gun-control laws invariably have low rates of homicide and
suicide. So the answer is simple–pass stricter gun-control laws. In
the real world, on the other hand, the figures are confusing, and there
are no simple solutions to complex problems. There is no demonstrable
relation between gun-control laws and suicide or homicide rates in
various nations. The U.S.A. actually has a lower rate of violent death
than some European nations that are held up as models of order. But if
we can face these facts, we will be able to seek real solutions to real