“This type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.”
US President Barack Obama, 18 June 2015
Nine people were shot dead in a church in South Carolina, and the president found himself addressing Americans on the issue of gun violence again.
Mr Obama, who failed to get gun ownership laws changed after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, said: “Once again, innocent people were killed – in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun.”
He added: “At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency.”
Fact or fiction?
How dangerous a place is the United States? Here’s a heat map showing the number of intentional homicides per 100,000 people in most countries in the world. The darker, the worse.
The data comes from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the figures are from 2013 or the most recent available:
The United States had a homicide rate of just under four people per 100,000 in 2013. That’s nearly four times the rate in the United Kingdom, and much higher than neighbouring Canada.
Many other countries are more dangerous, and America is way behind the deadliest country in the world, Honduras, where there are more than 20 times more slayings per head of population.
But it seems unfair to compare a stable, wealthy country like the US to poor, troubled nations, which is probably why Mr Obama referred specifically to “advanced countries”.
It’s debatable what that means exactly, but if we look at the OECD group of advanced economies, we see that the US fares badly by comparison to many of those countries:
Now America has the fourth worst homicide rate out of 34 wealthy countries.
How many of those killings are done with guns?
According to the UNODC, a full 60 per cent of homicides carried out in the US are attributable to firearm. That is the highest percentage of any of the OECD countries:
Putting all this together, we can get an idea of which countries have the highest firearm homicide rate. Again, the comparison does not flatter the United States.
Only Mexico, where violent organised drug crime is so prevalent that some commentators judge it to be in a state of war, has a higher gun homicide rate.
America also boasts the highest gun ownership rates in the world, estimated at 88.8 guns per 100 people in the 2007 Small Arms Survey.
It’s tempting to assume that countries with high rates of gun ownership will naturally experience high rates of gun violence, but the correlation between homicide rates and firearms prevalence in these figures is surprisingly weak.
Switzerland and Finland both have high rates of gun ownership (although still only half that of the US) but low homicide rates.
Mexico experiences very high numbers of killings but guns are relatively unusual in the general population, if these figures are to be believed.
It’s tempting to remove Mexico as an outlier, given its turbulent recent history, and if we do that a stronger correlation between gun ownership and homicide in OECD countries emerges.
But as we have found before, experts in the US are wary of assuming that tighter gun laws would lead to fewer killings, saying the evidence is inconclusive.
We’ve also found previously that the debate on gun control in America is not helped by a number of bogus statistical claims that are endlessly repeated.
Opponents of gun control sometimes claim that a gun saves a life every 13 seconds in America – a dubious figure that comes from a telephone survey carried out 20 years ago.
About 1 per cent of people phoned said they had recently used a gun to defend themselves, and people have extrapolated from that to come up with a “life saved every 13 seconds”.
But the number looks completely unrealistic when cross-checked against actual crime figures, and it’s a good idea to be sceptical about the things people say in telephone interviews.
In another US telephone survey, 6 per cent of people said that they had made contact with extra-terrestrials.
Gun homicide rates are far higher in America than in Canada, western Europe and in every country in the OECD group of advanced economies except Mexico, where the decade-long “war” on drugs may have claimed more than 100,000 lives.
Rates of gun ownership are the highest in the world too. It seems hard to believe that this can be a coincidence, although there are countries where firearms are common but homicide rates are low.