Juan Cole argues on his blog, Informed Comment, that comparing the rates of gun ownership and murders by firearms in the U.S. and U.K. prove a direct causal relationship between the two; that is, that less gun ownership means fewer gun homicides and more gun ownership means more murders by firearms.
He first cites the statistics. There were 12,996 murders in the U.S. in 2010, 8,775 of which were by firearms. There were 638 murders in Britain in 2011, 58 of which were by firearms. Since Britain’s population is one-fifth the U.S.’s, that is equivalent to 290 U.S. murders by firearms. From these numbers, Cole concludes:
The international comparisons show conclusively that fewer gun owners per capita produce not only fewer murders by firearm, but fewer murders per capita over all.
One commenter, Guav, left some more numbers along with the following intelligent reply:
If homicide rates (and more specifically, firearm homicide rates) correlated with firearm ownership rates, then Mexico’s firearm homicide rate should only be about twice that of the UK’s, not 10 times higher. And Switzerland’s firearm homicide rate should significantly higher than it is, with their high rates of firearm ownership, and their overall homicide rate certainly shouldn’t be lower than the UK’s.
When you compare a wider selection of countries–rather than just the US and the UK–you find that there is very little correlation between firearm ownership and homicide rates. The numbers are all over the place. It’s almost as if crime and homicide rates have far more complex causes than simply firearm availability …
Guav’s point, of course, is that you cannot draw a direct correlation between the numbers of guns owned in a country per capita and the murder rate (much less a direct causal relationship). Cole’s response to this is:
Seriously? You want to muddy the waters by throwing Mexico in? Which is having a major drug war in which tens of thousands have died?
Ah, insulting Guav’s intelligence in reply. Very mature. Let’s grant Cole that any country “having a major drug war” should be excluded from any comparisons. But, then, would that mean we must also exclude the U.S.? How many of the murders by firearms were related to drug crime? We obviously must exclude them all, at least, if not the whole country. I don’t know the answer; the point is Cole didn’t think to even inquire about that, despite the logic of his own argument leading to the conclusion that he must take this into consideration.
One “Forrest” astutely picked up on that and left the comment:
I am unsure why you term the response by Guav as “Terminally stupid”. It would seem your own argument that Mexico is in the midst of a major drug war should point you to the fact that the United States itself suffers from the same maladies. You may live in an area where you are privileged to not interface with it and if so congratulations. At best it would seem you could argue that Mexico’s numbers are inflated by the influence and peripheries of the drug war. I would say the same for the US. Would you consider a comparison between Switzerland and the UK better? If so their example of firearms ownership my prove to be more enlightening.
Juan’s only response to that was
Really. You think the Detroit area unafffected?
So Cole just totally (intentionally) missed Forrest’s point and failed to address the logic of his argument. One wonders if this may not also qualify, then, as a “Terminally stupid” reply. (And this is equally besides the point, but there are uppity neighborhoods in Detroit where drive-bys and such probably aren’t a regular occurrence, like Grosse Pointe, Rochester Hills, or West Bloomfield. Perhaps Mr. Cole has chosen to reside in the ghetto, though.)
Let’s take Switzerland, then, whose statistics Guav also cited. The Swiss aren’t having a major drug war. And yet Cole simply ignores this example. Is it also “Terminally stupid” to make comparisons with Switzerland?
Another commenter, “Anon E. Mus”, followed Cole’s lead and told Guav that bringing Switzerland into it was also “just muddying the waters” because “every Swiss adult male is inducted into the militia and given a gun”. His point is that the gun ownership of members of the militia should not be counted. But why not? Cole’s argument is that fewer guns in people’s hands means fewer murders, so it seems directly relevant to compare Switzerland, where there is a high rate of gun ownership, to see if that conclusion follows.
Guav once again responded intelligently to point out that the numbers he cited for Switzerland were for private gun ownership, and that the Swiss example “only bolsters my point: that widespread availability of firearms itself is not what drives crime rates and homicide rates (firearm or otherwise).”
Cole’s only response to this was to accuse Guav of failing to apply “sociological reasoning” and trying to score “cheap points”, and telling Guav to “look up the actual literature” because what he had said “means nothing”.
That comment seems particularly hypocritical, since these criticisms would seem to apply equally to his own arguments. In a later comment, Cole added, “Sloppy thinkers who instance Switzerland are counting their national guard.” What he means is that it counts the militia, which by definition just means ordinary citizens who would take up arms to defend their country if need be. Why should they be excluded? Swiss militia members are private citizens who own guns, the same as in the U.S.; the only difference is that in the case of Switzerland, the government gives them a gun and they are expected to learn how to use it and to defend their country with it should the occasion arise—which seems all the more reason why Switzerland makes a valid and interesting comparison.
The Guardian has “Gun homicides and gun ownership listed by country”, so let’s take a look and see how Cole’s logic holds up.
The U.S. has by far the highest rate of gun ownership among the 178 countries listed, at 88 guns per 100 people. By Cole’s logic, that should mean it should also be at the top of the list for gun homicides. And yet, in fact, the U.S. ranks 28th on that list, with a rate of 2.97 gun homicides for every 100,000 people.
Let’s test Cole’s hypothesis further by comparing Switzerland and applying his own logic. The average total of all civilian firearms in Switzerland is 3,400,000, or 45.7 guns per 100 people; not nearly as much as the U.S., but still relatively high compared to other nations. And yet its gun homicide number is just 3, for a rate of .77 gun homicides per 100,000 people.
The Swiss population is 7,907,000, compared to a U.S. population of 311,591,917, or about one-fortieth the U.S. So Switzerland’s 3 gun homicides is equivalent to 120 in the U.S., significantly lower than Britain’s equivalent number of 290, despite a much higher rate of gun ownership (England and Wales come in at 6.2 guns per 100 citizens and Scotland even less at 5.5).
So comparing Britain and Switzerland, by Cole’s logic, we can “show conclusively” that when the government supplies its citizens with guns, it produces fewer murders by firearms than when the government tries to take guns away.
Let’s take another example. I happen live in Taiwan, where there is a total ban on gun ownership, so let’s take that example. “Taiwan has some of the toughest gun-control laws in the world,” TIME points out. It should follow, by Cole’s logic, that gun homicides should be very low, then. Despite it being illegal for private citizens to own a firearm, Taiwan comes in at 4.4 guns per 100 people, perhaps an indication as to the high number of gang members who are in illegal possession. So what happens when you take guns away from law-abiding citizens so that only criminals possess them? Taiwan comes in with 128 gun homicides. With a population of 23,174,528, or about one-thirteenth the U.S.’s, that’s equivalent to 1,721 U.S. gun homicides, much higher than Britain’s 290, despite a lower rate of gun ownership and even stricter gun-control laws.
One should also note that gun homicides in Britain have historically always been low, and was low compared to other countries even before England had gun control laws, as Dr. Stephen Halbrook points out. Halbrook’s own conclusion is
The bottom line is one of attitude. Populations with training in civic virtue, though armed, generally do not experience sensational massacres or high crime rates. Switzerland fits this mold. But the United States does not. As H. Rap Brown declared in the 1960s, “Violence is as American as apple pie.”
There are obviously a great many factors involved in a country’s rate of gun homicides. It clearly doesn’t come down to just how many citizens own guns. A more reasonable hypothesis for the U.S. case, as Dr. Halbrook hinted at, might be that the culture of violence—and the example the government itself sets in its lawlessness and criminal violence—has more to do with gun homicides than the mere fact of gun ownership.
But getting back to Cole’s post, what conclusion may we draw? Well, none, really, except that the numbers really do show fairly conclusively that it is “Terminally stupid”, to fairly borrow from Mr. Cole, to say that “international comparisons show conclusively that fewer gun owners per capita produce … fewer murders by firearm”.