Much of the political thinking about violence in the United States comes from unfavorable comparisons between the United States and a series of cherry-picked countries with lower murder rates and with fewer guns per capita. We’ve all seen it many times. The United States, with a murder rate of approximately 5 per 100,000 is compared to a variety of Western and Central European countries (also sometimes Japan) with murder rates often below 1 per 100,000. This is, in turn, supposed to fill Americans with a sense of shame and illustrate that the United States should be regarded as some sort of pariah nation because of its murder rate.
Prejudice about the "Developed World" vs "the Third World"
Much of this stems from outdated preconceived and evidence-free notions about the "third world." As Hans Rosling has shown, there is this idea of "we" vs. "them." "We" are the special "developed" countries were people are happy healthy, and live long lives. "Them" is the third world where people live in war-torn squalor and lives there are nasty, brutish, and short. In this mode of thinking there is a bright shiny line between the "developed" world and everyone else, who might as well be considered as a different species.
In truth, there is no dividing line between the alleged "developed" world and everyone else. There is, in fact, only gradual change that takes place as one looks at Belgium, then the US, then Chile, and Turkey, and China, and Mexico. Most countries, as Rosling illustrates here, are in the middle, and this is freely exhibited by a variety of metrics including the UN's human development index.
Once we understand these facts, and do not cling to bizarre xenophobic views about how everyone outside the "developed" world is too dysfunctional and/or subhuman (although few gun control advocates would ever admit to the thought) to bear comparison to the US, we immediately see that the mantra "worst in the developed world" offers an immensely skewed, unrealistic, and even bigoted view of the world and how countries compare to each other.
While ignorance about true global poverty, life expectancy, and family planning are no doubt a source of some of these wrong-headed comparisons, one doesn't need to be the world's biggest cynic to recognize that the US is only compared to a selective list of countries because doing so offers a biased view of the United States that makes it looks like an especially crime-ridden place.
But, we are never allowed to compare the US to middle income countries like Uruguay, Russia, or Mexico because that would show that the US is actually a remarkably safe place in global terms on top of having many more legally owned guns than those countries.
Nevertheless, we've all heard it too many times to count: gun laws in the United States are "insane" because countries like Sweden and Luxembourg have far more restrictive gun laws and are much safer because of it. The US has the highest murder rate in the "developed world" — presumably because of its lax guns laws —we are told again and again.
Few people who repeat this mantra have any standard in their heads of what exactly is the "developed" world. They just repeat the phrase because they have learned to do so. They never acknowledge that when factors beyond per capita GDP are considered, it makes little sense to claim Sweden should be compared to the US, but not Argentina. Such assertions ignore immense differences in culture, size, politics, history, demographics, or ethnic diversity. Comparisons with mono-ethnic Asian countries like Japan and Korea make even less sense.
But for an illustration of where this sort of thinking leads, let's look at this Washington Post article titled “The U.S. has far more gun-related killings than any other developed country.”
But if you're familiar with the OECD, you'll immediately notice a problem with the list Fisher uses. Mexico is an OECD country. So why is Mexico not in this graph? Well, it's pretty apparent that Mexico was left off the list because to do so would interfere with the point Fisher is trying to make. After all, Mexico — in spite of much more restrictive gun laws — has a murder rate many times larger than the US.
But Fisher has what he thinks is a good excuse for his manipulation here. According to Fisher, the omission is because Mexico “has about triple the U.S. rate due in large part to the ongoing drug war.”
Oh, so every country that has drug war deaths is exempt? Well, then I guess we have to remove the US from the list.
Gun ownership levels are based on the Small Arms Survey data. This takes into account "registered" vs. "unregistered" civilian gun ownership in the countries surveyed. Murder rates come from UNODC data.
State by state data in the US is usually presented as a percentage of residents who are gun owners. worldwide, however, gun ownership is presented as numbers of guns per 100 residents. I attempted to make the two lists compatible by taking the percentage of gun owners and adjusting it to reflect the fact that there are about 2.8 guns per gun owner in the US (using Small Arms Survey Data for the US). Thus, in Wyoming, for example, we end up with a number of more than 130 guns per 100 residents.
Now, let's address the bait-and-switch of using "gun-related killings" versus homicides, that is often used. These numbers include accidents and suicides. But of course, the reason most people are concerned about gun violence is because of homicides. Many people commit suicides with ropes and cars, but we don't talk about banning ropes and cars. Moreover, many people die from accidents involving power tools, ladders, and other items. Again, we don't talk about banning those things. The other statistic often used is "gun-related deaths." This also ignores the fact that the whole point of gun control (in the minds of most of the public) is to bring down the murder rate. It would be irresponsible to bring down gun murders and then ignore the overall murder rate. After all, if the "gun murder" rate goes down, but the murder rate remains unchanged, then we find that little has been accomplished. It stands to reason that few murdered people think in their last moments "gee, at least I wasn't murdered with a gun."