Friday, January 8, 2016

A Depraved Nation?

I was happy to see President Obama take some action this week to tighten US gun control laws, if only moderately.

Somehow in America, with 10 times more gun homicides than most other industrialized countries, taking even these small steps is considered a bold move. (Obama’s opponents consider it tyranny, but such thinking belongs to a wholly different realm of reality.)

For folks in Finland (with only one-sixteenth America’s level of gun violence) it’s probably almost impossible to comprehend what a big deal the gun issue is in the US, and how passionate – sometime hysterical, in my mind – supporters of gun rights can be. Just check the comment section of any on-line article on gun control. They are rife with excessive anger and alarm and well-worn arguments against gun control.

One pro-gun argument that you will always run across is that it’s not, heaven forbid, the easy access to guns that accounts for the high number of gun deaths in America, since guns by themselves cannot do anything.

This line of reasoning is summed up by the pithy phrase, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”.

Well, duh.

Of course, in most cases, a person does have to pull the trigger, though that has been known on occasion to be done instead by, for example, a hunting dog. Dropping a loaded gun on the kitchen floor might also do the trick. Such things happen often enough.

Fleshing out the “people are the problem” argument a bit more, gun lobby groups like the all-mighty NRA would say that the real issue lies somewhere else. In a culture of violence inspired by Hollywood or the makers of video games. Or in the general erosion of society. Or – a new favorite nowadays – they would say the problem lies in the abysmal level of mental-health care that America has found itself saddled with.

To me, most of these alternative arguments are weak deflections, especially since I tend to see the problem from a more international perspective.

Countries with much lower rates of gun violence, such as most European nations, are also awash with violent Hollywood films and video games. They’re not so different from America in that sense. What they are not awash with, however, are easily available firearms, and that to me seems more likely to be the differentiating factor.

Let’s take for example a recent story in the Washington Post highlighting how on this past Christmas Day in America 27 people were intentionally killed by guns, a number that equals the number of gun deaths in eight other countries. Eight other countries combined. For one entire year.

To spell it out more clearly: a year’s worth of gun deaths in Austria, New Zealand, Slovenia, Estonia, Bermuda, Hong Kong, and Iceland (let’s call them “the Peaceful Eight”) tallied all together match America’s gun death toll from a single day, Christmas Day.

And this doesn’t include accidental shootings or suicides. Also, Christmas, being a holiday celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace, was a slow day for killing. Normally, on an average day, it’s more like 36 homicides from guns.

When I saw that dismal statistic, I did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation (well, actually, I used excel, but you get the idea) in order to get a better comparison.

Naturally, you’ve got to account for the fact that the US is a much bigger country than all those eight nations (Bermuda? Are you kidding?) put together. The per capita gun death toll for the Peaceful Eight, comes to about 91 per 100 million inhabitants, compared to the US figure of 8 deaths (based on last Christmas’ death count).

But, of course, that’s 91 deaths spread over 365 days. When you annualize the US figure, you’re looking at a yearly toll of 3055 killings per 100 million Americans. That’s 33 times the number of people killed by guns in the Peaceful Eight. If you use the more typical daily average of 36 Americans killed by guns (a yearly sum of 4073 per 100 million population), it’s more like a 45-fold difference.

That's 45 times more gun deaths in America than in these eight otherwise similarly civilized and advanced nations. I’ve visited four of them, and they seem normal to me. Happy, even.

I should point out that the Washington Post didn’t just randomly pick those eight disparate nations to compare to the US. The Post article links to a chart produced by, a gun-control advocacy group. The chart compares annual gun deaths in 22 developed nations*.  (Of course, anti-gun control folks will immediately howl that you can’t trust data from any such site. I’m willing to believe the data are accurate enough.)

As it happens, the less-violent right-hand end of GunPolicy’s chart is occupied by the Peaceful Eight, whose total yearly output of gun murder victims conveniently (for the Post article) exactly equals 27, the US Christmas death toll. On the other end of the scale, France is noticeably bloodier, with 140, based on data from 2012, which naturally doesn't include the horrific November terrorist attack in Paris.  

Some might accuse the Washington Post of cherry-picking the data, though the fact remains that France’s "typical" 140 deaths from gunshot (210 per 100 million) is still better than America’s 4073.

The chart also indicates that Finland suffers 17 gun deaths a year*. That comes to 309 per 100 million, and 13 times fewer than in America.

So, let’s assume, as the NRA and their ilk would have us do, that the overwhelming presence of guns in America doesn’t explain the 45-fold difference in deaths compared to the Peaceful Eight. What if we take the "guns don't kill people" argument at face value? 

If we assume people are solely to blame, not the guns, then my only conclusion is that Americans are 45 times more violent than the citizens of Austria, New Zealand, Slovenia, Estonia, Bermuda, Hong Kong, and Iceland. Forty-five times more bloodthirsty than those other folks. Forty-five times more depraved. Americans apparently value human life 45 times less than people in the Peaceful Eight or, if you will, 13 times less than Finns do.

Given the history of the US, I have to concede this might be the case. America is violent place. As one of my favorite writers, Edward Abbey, once said, “There is nothing more American than violence”. Maybe that explains it all. Still, that is not a happy thought.

Or, maybe Americans aren’t really so exceptionally violent after all, at least not 45-times more violent. 

Maybe the average Austrian or New Zealander, or Finn for that matter, is actually just as bloodthirsty or unhinged as the average American. It’s just that they, unlike most Americans, can’t so easily reach for a gun whenever they get the urge to kill. 

I'd like to think that was true, and that Americans aren't actually that depraved. But that's not what the NRA would like you to think. 

© 2016

*The data in the chart for different countries are derived from different years, so no one single year is used for all of the comparisons.


  1. You don't really touch on why there are so many guns here in the USA, which is a political reason. I won't get started, else I'll consume more space here than your original statements.

    I will agree on part of your conclusion which is that Americans are probably at base no more violent than your average schmuck anywhere else. Yes, the availability of guns expands our murder rate into the realm of complete insanity. I'll leave it at that, only adding that I am stuck here in this vast insane asylum doing my best not to get shot.

  2. I wonder if there's much difference violent crime rate between the US and comparable countries if firearm-related crime is excluded. My guess is that there'd still be a difference, but that it would be much less dramatic. (That is, the US would remain a much more violent country than its peers of all guns were removed, and thus the availability of guns is only part of the problem.)

    1. You’re probably right about that. Figures I’ve seen on homicides overall seem to show that the US is still three times more violent than Finland -- though even more violent (eight times) when you consider only homicides by guns. So, guns are not the only problem.

      In my layman’s opinion, it’s America’s higher levels of poverty and its drug habit that has a lot to do the higher criminality in the States. Sad to say, but the easy access to guns just seems to further grease the wheels of America’s relative dysfunction.