Data Analyst and Lover of Baseball and Beer
By Doug Duffy | 22/02/2016
We hear about gun violence in a variety of forms in the media, whether it is an incident of a cop shooting a 12-year old in what he/she believes is self defense or one of the listings in the astonishingly long Wikipedia article on school shootings in the United States. Strangely this doesn’t seem to be a major topic of the 2016 Presidential election, because it strikes me as relevant. Rather than hurl one-liners, such as “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, or whatever the equivalent is from the pro-gun control side, I was curious what the stats I could scrape up would show about the correlation of gun ownership with various crime and suicide rates.
Gun ownership rates across the United States are distributed as one might expect, with the more rural South and West accounting for most of the top ten, North Dakota being the lone exception. There are obviously a variety of socioeconomic factors at the state level that affect any of the crime rates being examined. For example, including Washington, D.C. is strange, because D.C. consists solely of an urban environment, whereas all the other states are varying mixtures of urban and rural settings. This causes D.C. to stick out when examining violent crime rate, roughly double any other state, mostly due to its robbery rate. That crime is to some degree an urban phenomenon is not Earth shattering.
The most striking correlation is between suicide rate and gun ownership, perhaps because this isn’t headline grabbing and perhaps because talking about mental health or depression just isn’t easy. Thankfully, the issue of mental health has entered the debate on gun control/rights, but the argument has been framed more as a protection of the public from crazy people with guns, rather than the frank reality of mental health being an issue many people deal with, and the tragic consequences when it is coupled with gun ownership.
Additionally, there is a slightly positive trend with both Forcible Rape Rate (to distinguish from statutory rape) and Aggravated Assault Rate with gun ownership. There is a slightly negative trend of Robbery Rate with gun ownership, which may be related to robbery being an urban crime and gun ownership being mostly a rural phenomenon.
As a scientist, another troubling aspect isn’t that we have failed to rectify what most people agree is an issue, but that we actively prevent ourselves as a society from investigating the issue. Since 1996, through an Omnibus Appropriations bill, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has been prohibited from conducting research “used to advocate or promote gun control”, and in 2011 the so-called Dickey Amendment (name after the sponsoring Representative who has since regretted this law) was broadened to also apply to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The American Psychological Association provides a nice history of this funding freeze. The Federal Government provides statistics on everything from homicides to suicides to how many people work at fast food restaurants, why should they be prevented from investigating the best way to prevent a toddler from shooting himself or someone else. In the US in 2015, there were 43 incidents of a toddler (3 years of age or younger) shooting another individual, with 15 deaths, and that article is from mid-October, leaving two and a half months uncounted. We have child-safety locks on everything from electrical outlets to car doors to pill bottles, why is the government prevented from researching child-safety locks for a gun?
At the country level, the data was easier to acquire with either the United Nations or the World Health Organization compiling the homicide, suicide or gun ownership rates. The impact of socioeconomic factors on homicide or suicide rate becomes even clearer examining the country data. It quickly becomes apparent that gun ownership is largely a developed world phenomenon with homicide mostly a developing world issue.
Gun ownership rates in the US (on a per capita basis) are twice what they are in every other country except Serbia. Every country with a homicide rate above 20 per 100,000 residents is located in either Africa or the Americas, with Honduras topping the list at over 90 homicides per 100,000 people. In terms of suicide rates, Guyana has the most in the world at 44 per 100,000 people.
We can strip away some of the complicating factors by examining homicide rates in only developed countries. This begins to indicate that homicide rates in the US are an outlier, being more than twice as high as in any other country in the G10, coupled with the 4th highest rate of suicide.