WASHINGTON, Jan. 3, 2016 — President Obama is launching a major offensive in his attempt to get gun control legislation passed. He will join CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Thursday for a one-hour town hall meeting in an attempt to rally public support for action, and he plans to impose his own measures in a bid to overcome congressional—mostly GOP—resistance to his gun-control initiatives.
In spite of frequent and intensive media coverage of shootings and the president’s frequent emotional appeals for action, Congress has refused to pass legislation that Obama and his allies have demanded.
The statistics seem solid in support of gun control. The U.S. has the highest gun-related homicide rate in the “developed world,” approximately 3.2 per 100,000. The next highest is Chile, with 2.2, followed by European countries with rates under 1 per 100,000. The rates in Japan, South Korea and Iceland are almost zero.
“Developed world” is usually synonymous with the OECD, the world’s club of industrialized nations. Mexico, however, is a member of the OECD but is dropped from the “developed world” group; that’s because Mexico has a gun-related homicide rate nearly triple that of the U.S., in large part because of its ongoing drug wars.
That raises a question: Should American drug-related gun deaths be excluded from the statistics?
That question may seem trollish, but it has a serious point. Turkey is a member of the OECD, as is Bulgaria. According to the U.N., Turkey’s human development index (HDI) is about the same as Mexico’s, 0.75. Countries with HDI above that include Argentina, the Bahamas, Uruguay, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Panama and Lithuania. These are not all developed countries according to OECD membership, but they are as developed by UN standards as many OECD countries.
And, not incidentally, they all have higher murder rates than the U.S.
A caveat here: Now we are talking about murder rates, not just gun-related homicides. We often think of gun-homicide rates and murder rates as the same, but they are not. Certainly the elimination or strict control of guns will reduce the use of guns to kill people, but the problem of homicide is not the same as the problem of guns.
Another caveat: The words “homicide” and “murder” are often used interchangeably in these discussions, but they are not exact synonyms. Gun-related homicide can also include suicide. Gun-related deaths will also include accidental shootings.
And the U.S. has plenty of both.
We can’t honestly discuss gun-deaths and gun-control without considering those caveats, but we should ask, why compare the U.S. only with selected members of the OECD and not other countries? Americans certainly think of America as more like Germany and Canada than like Somalia or Venezuela, but there is clearly some cherry-picking involved in our comparison to “developed countries,” and a clear assumption is that industrialization has some how made us socially and morally superior to the people in benighted places like Panama, Russia and Costa Rica.
Let’s consider those caveats. There are about 32,000 gun deaths per year in the U.S. About 60 percent are suicides, 3 percent accidental deaths, and 34 percent murder-homicides. That is, there are 11,000 gun-related murders in the U.S. every year.
The causes of those homicides are varied. Estimates are that 80 percent of homicides in Chicago and Baltimore are gang or drug-related. In New Orleans, between 35 and 55 percent of homicides are gang-related. These are estimates, subject to differences in record-keeping and the opinion of the police.
The most dangerous cities in America are cities plagued by gang violence. Target the gangs and you deal with the gun violence. Guns are clearly an issue, but they are not the underlying problem. We are at war on drugs, and gangs are at war with each other. These are hot, violent wars. End them, and the violence ends.
Guns are used in about half of all suicides in America. Suicide by firearm accounts for most of the gun deaths in America, about 20,000. This is often cited after fear of random or mass shootings as the main reason for better gun control. South Korea, by contrast, has almost no suicides (or other homicides) by gun.
Yet the suicide rate in South Korea is more than double the American rate.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. suicide rate is 12.1 per 100,000. That puts us in 50th place in the world, behind France (12.3), Iceland (14.0), Belgium (14.2), Japan (18.5), and South Korea (28.9). Americans kill themselves more often with guns, but you, your friends and family are at less risk of suicide in the U.S. than you would be in these other countries to which we’re so unfavorably compared in terms of gun violence.
Mass shootings remain a rarity in the U.S., though a very well-reported one. Homicide rates have been declining in the U.S. for over a generation. Total murders and non-negligent homicides have declined from almost 11 per 100,000 in the early 1980s to under five in 2014. The year 2015 saw a spike in homicide rates in cities around the country, with a 76 percent increase in Milwaukee. The reasons aren’t clear, but it seems unlikely that it’s just because Americans suddenly noticed that they had access to guns.
The issue is even more interesting when we break down gun violence by state, by ethnic group and by race. North Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Colorado, New Hampshire and Oregon all have murder rates lower than the national average.
They also have murder rates equal to or lower than those in Canada, Chile and Turkey, countries to which the U.S. is compared unfavorably in OECD statistics of gun violence. We might trollishly suggest that Canada bring down its murder rate by adopting the level of gun ownership in Idaho (about 160 per hundred residents) and Idaho’s gun laws.
President Obama hopes to make meaningful gun control a part of his legacy. The data show that gun deaths are genuinely high in the U.S. relative to other OECD countries, and this should be a cause for concern. However, they also strongly suggest that guns aren’t the real issue here.
Tragedies like those in Newton, Aurora and San Bernardino galvanize public emotion, but gun policy should be driven by an unemotional look at the data. If you believe that guns are the problem, the data will certainly tell you that far too many Americans are killed with guns. But the data also tell us that there are sociological issues in play. If you’re a white woman, you’re in as much danger of gun violence in the U.S. as you are in Germany. If you’re a black man, you’re in as much danger as you are in the most violent parts of Africa.
Rather than obsessing over “assault rifles,” we should be asking why there’s such carnage in the black community and what we can do to help that community. The assumption that black people just can’t handle their guns is as viciously racist as the claim that Indians are a mess because they can’t handle their liquor.
Japan and South Korea don’t have a gun violence problem, but they do have a suicide problem. Canada doesn’t have a gun violence problem, but compared to Idaho, it does have a murder problem. What we face are drug violence and gang violence problems and a domestic violence problem—problems that won’t be dealt with by banning “assault-rifles” or closing the gun-show background-check loophole.
Politics is often not about solving problems, but about being seen to do something. Obama wants to do something, and a lot of Americans want Congress to do something. Their desire, however, should be to solve problems.
Doing something showy and useless, however, is about all we should expect from Obama or Congress.