At this point, it feels like every permutation of the debate on gun control has happened. After each tragedy, both sides drag out talking points, shout, and nothing changes. But a new study this week robs credibility from the claim that a higher rate of gun ownership means a lower rate of crime.
A new study (pdf) in the American Journal of Medicine compared 27 developed nations and found that gun ownership correlates positively with rates of firearm deaths, but not a lower overall crime rate. The researchers, from St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital, NYU’s School of Medicine, and the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, also found a positive, but not quite as strong, correlation between rates of mental illness and firearm related death. They didn’t find a correlation between rates of mental illness and crime overall.
The study looked at surveys of gun ownership, and firearm deaths as defined by the World Health Organization, which includes accidents, assaults and intentional self-harm. Mental illness burden was defined as, “age-standardized disability-adjusted life-year rates due to major depressive disorder per 100,000 inhabitants.” The crime rate came from a United Nations Survey of Crime Trends.
South Africa is a bit of an outlier there, not quite as high as the US. Japan's flag is nearly invisible in the bottom left.
The crime rate in the United States is actually fairly low compared to the other developed countries, but America lead the pack in firearm deaths and firearm ownership. America also blew the other countries out of the water when it came to rates of mental illness.
When regulating firearms comes up in America, often the debate quickly turns hypothetical—“if someone with a gun was there, it wouldn’t have happened,” or “without guns America’s crime rate would be even higher.” But looking at the data of things that have actually happened, it’s hard to see guns making a huge difference. Finland and Switzerland have almost identical rates of gun ownership but Finland’s crime rate is almost double Switzerland’s.
The research team, no doubt familiar with how these debates go, hedged its bets:
Although correlation is not synonymous with causation, it seems conceivable that abundant gun availability facilitates firearm-related deaths. Conversely, high crime rates may instigate widespread anxiety and fear, thereby motivating people to arm themselves and give rise to increased gun ownership, which, in turn, increases availability. The resulting vicious cycle could, bit-by-bit, lead to the polarized status that is now the case with the US.
Regardless of exact cause and effect, however, the current study debunks the widely quoted hypothesis purporting to show that countries with the higher gun ownership are safer than those with low gun ownership.
Cue the cries that United States can’t be compared with any other countries. It’s weird how I never hear that when it comes to something like, say, the Olympics. It seems to always come out loudest when the comparison is unflattering.