Lately, I have been working on the chapter of my book on American gun culture that explores negative outcomes with firearms.
Although I differ from most scholars studying guns by beginning not with gun deviance but with the normality of guns and gun owners, I do take negative outcomes seriously.
America is exceptional in the world for the number of firearms legally owned by its citizens, as well as the laws and culture that support widespread civilian gun ownership. Understanding this has been central to my work over the years.
America is also exceptional among its peer nations in its rate of firearm-related deaths. Here I will focus on homicide using 2019 data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study for the 38 member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). These are high-income, high human development index, developed nations which provide an appropriate peer comparison group for understanding homicide rates in the United States.
As this table shows, the total homicide rate in the United States is 5th highest among OECD nations. Substantially lower than Colombia, Mexico, and Costa Rica, and on par with Lituania, Estonia, and Chile — which isn’t exactly a feather in our national cap.
The following table shows that our high total homicide rate is mainly driven by our firearm homicide rate, which is the 4th highest among OECD nations. Here we leapfrog Latvia, where killing people with weapons other than guns is rampant.
Sorting these data one more time is important in getting the fullest possible picture of America’s violent exceptionalism. Even though homicide with firearms is the majority of all homicides in the United States, looking just at the non-firearm homicide rate shows the US to be above average (rank = #10, OECD median rate = 1.00; see table at end of this post).
In fact, as the table below demonstrates, the NON-FIREARM homicide rate in the U.S. is higher than the TOTAL homicide rate in 22 of 37 other OECD nations.
My takeaway is: We have a problem with homicidal violence in the U.S. that is exacerbated by the lethality of firearms as a weapon of choice for those who want to kill other people.
Like my colleagues who approach this issue from a public health perspective, I see guns as a risk factor for negative outcomes. At a basic level, this makes sense. People don’t drown where there’s no water. The presence of a firearm is a precondition of firearm homicide. But is it really as simple as that?
In my view, to properly understand gun ownership as a risk factor for homicide, we need to understand how homicide is culturally motivated, socially organized, and unequally distributed. It is an intersectional health disparity. This is a major point in my recent Journal of Lutheran Ethics essay on “Understanding and Misunderstanding American Gun Culture and Violence.”
Tomorrow I will explore the IHME GBD dataset for insights on suicide. Stay tuned!
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10 thoughts on “Exploring America’s Violent Exceptionalism via the Global Burden of Disease Collaborative Network (Homicide)”
Interesting point to think about. That our non-firearm homicide rate is so much higher than the majority of our peers, despite the ready availability of firearms that would tend to favor their use for anyone with homicidal intentions. Kind of speaks to something going on behind that. I know historically, say, 100 years ago, when our gun laws and that of Great Britain were essentially similar, ours was still a more dangerous country by far.
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According to Peter Berger, the first principle of of sociology is “things are not what they seem.” I’ve found that to be very true in my years studying guns and gun culture. Including here.
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I’d never seen the non-firearm homicide rate compared directly like this before and it definitely raises questions. For some reason nobody seems to have been interested in that.
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I plotted the overall suicide rate : gun ownership rate, and there is no significant correlation. A plot of murder rate to gun ownership rate would look just as messy:
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yes but you are looking at the “average” for the entire USA. Most/ almost all of the homicides are in the large cities. They are outliers and if removed from the sample set we would have a much lower rate than many European counties.
The studies, to my mind, are purposely constructed to hide that fact. The FBI data is clear, and can be broken down, but it is up to the study PI to do that and they are not. It would not fit the agenda
The drowning analogy can be extended further: people who know how to swim, or who wear life vests, are far less likely to drown than those who don’t. Gun owners who practice safety are far less likely to cause injury or death than those few who don’t.
Further, water posed an infinitely greater hazard to Virginia Woolf than to Michael Phelps. Like Woolf, those who are suicidal seek out guns for the expressed purpose of doing harm to themselves. Criminals take up guns expressly to do harm to others.
No one in their right mind would treat water as a pathogen. The gun-as-pathogen paradigm fails, as guns do not pose the same risk to all exposed. Indeed, one must go out of one’s way to cause or receive harm from a firearm.
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One thing that never gets broken out in these statistics is the geographic disparity inside the US.
The governor of California loves to point out that Red States have a higher murder rate than Blue states. But if you look at the red states you find that the murders – overwhelmingly – happen in the Blue Cities. New Orleans in Louisiana. Houston in Texas. Miami in Florida.
South Dakota is an interesting example. It had the highest per-captia rate of concealed carry licenses (back before Constitutional Carry was a thing) of any state. It remains one of the safest states.
Switzerland, before they embarked on a program of disarming their population in recent years had the highest rate of firearm ownership with it being almost certain that there was at least one firearm – usually fully automatic – in every dwelling. They have one of the lowest, if not the lowest, crime rates in Europe. And they would always point out that the bulk of the crime was committed by “criminal tourists.”
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FYI, California’s mass shooting per capita rate is higher than Texas’:
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