The Reality of American Violence

There is a powerful and pervasive narrative about violence in America that goes something like this:

The United States has lots of guns, permissive gun laws, and lots of gun violence. Other countries have fewer guns, more restrictive gun laws, and far less gun violence. Therefore, if the United States wants to achieve lower levels of violence, it should enact stringent gun control policies.

It’s easy to see how this simple, straightforward narrative could be compelling. But it’s wrong. A more thorough examination of the narrative reveals it to be simplistic rather than simple.

If we study American violence more closely, we cannot escape two conclusions: 1) The connection between American violence and guns/gun policy is tenuous and superficial. 2) The fundamental sociological drivers of American violence are complex, poorly understood, and deserving of the scrutiny that has instead been diverted to guns.

Let us consider a few basic facts about American violence that will help us to arrive at those conclusions.

  1. Compared to most of Europe, the United States is relatively violent — but that remains true even if you completely eliminate U.S. gun violence from the equation.

Broadly speaking, it’s true that the United States is more violent than Europe. In 2017, most of the countries that comprise the European Union had homicide rates of around 1 per 100,000. In the same year, the U.S. homicide rate was just over 5 per 100,000. And it’s true that guns are used in most American homicides. So, if the United States were to adopt European-style gun control, these murders wouldn’t happen and Americans would enjoy European-style homicide rates — right?

In fact, the reality is much more complicated. Let’s start with the observation that, in 2017, the United States’ non-firearm homicide rate was about double the total homicide rates (including firearm homicides) of most European Union countries. In other words, even if we completely remove America’s gun violence from the equation — an utterly unrealistic hypothetical, no matter what gun policies the U.S. adopts — we see the United States is still significantly more violent than Europe. The United States’ gun violence is a symptom of underlying sociological factors that drive other forms of violence as well — guns and permissive gun policy are not themselves an independent “cause” of violence. The fact that American criminals clearly prefer guns over other weapons, and are able to get them, should not be mistaken for the notion that guns, of their own accord, somehow “beget” criminals.

So it’s probably fair to say that, compared to Europe, the United States does have a violence problem — but this violence problem is clearly not reducible to “guns” or “gun control.”

That observation does not eliminate the possibility that gun control could at least help to ameliorate violence in the United States. However, elsewhere in this piece, we’ll see that there’s little reason to think that’s the case.

2. The United States is violent compared to Europe — but, by our own historical standards, we’re actually very peaceful, and we’re continuing to become more peaceful.

It’s intellectually lazy to seize upon “guns” to explain the United States’ relative violence. On the other hand, effectively accounting for all of the sociological differences between the U.S. and other countries that could explain the disparate rates of violence that we observe is extremely difficult.

Fortunately, other countries are not the only possible basis of comparison. We can also compare the United States to itself at different periods in time. In doing so, we can control for many observed and unobserved variables. Such an analysis paints an interesting picture of the relationship between firearms and violence in the United States.

Below is a graph of the United States’ homicide rates since 1950. As you can see, homicide rates have been falling for decades and are near historic lows.

What does that decline in violence have to do with Americans’ relationship with guns? Well, during the decline:

  • Concealed carry laws were greatly liberalized, making it much easier for ordinary citizens to legally carry firearms. You can watch the dramatic state-by-state liberalization over time here.
  • The federal assault weapons ban (AWB) expired in 2004. The term of the ban coincided with a homicide rate decline, but that decline had started before it went into effect. And even the highest observed post-ban homicide rate was lower than the lowest observed homicide rate during the term of the ban. A recent NPR report was largely sympathetic to the idea of a new AWB, but the report nonetheless had to concede that the ban we actually experienced “did not do much to reduce the incidence of gun violence.”
  • A combination of factors — including the expiration of Colt’s AR-15 patents, improvements in manufacturing technology, and the expiration of the aforementioned assault weapons ban — led to a dramatic increase in the affordability and ownership of high-quality semi-automatic rifles patterned after the AR-15. As of 2018, the National Shooting Sports Foundation estimated that Americans possessed 16 million of these rifles.
  • Per capita gun ownership increased tremendously.
  • A powerful “gun culture” independent of hunting or sport shooting emerged as a social phenomenon. Although it’s difficult to find a particular metric by which to measure the growth of “gun culture,” social media might be a good place to start. For example, there are several gun-centric YouTube channels with subscriber counts in the millions. “Demolition Ranch,” a channel hosted by firearms-enthusiast and veterinarian Matt Carriker, has over eight million subscribers.

In short, a dramatic liberalization of gun policy and attitudes toward guns, accompanied by a surge in gun ownership (especially of the types of weapons politicians today are most ready to demonize), has been correlated with an equally dramatic decrease in violence.

The idea that the liberalization of gun laws had some causal role in the precipitous decline of violence is interesting and perhaps warrants further investigation, but that hypothesis goes farther than is necessary to defend gun rights: liberty doesn’t require justification. Restrictions of it do.

3. The U.S. is not especially violent in a broad global context.

Let’s return to international comparisons.

Again, it’s true that the United States has much less restrictive gun laws, and a much higher homicide rate, than, say, the U.K. or Japan. But that’s only half of the story: The U.S. also has much less restrictive gun laws than all of the countries that are more violent.

Our neighbors, Canada and Mexico, serve to illustrate this phenomenon perfectly. Both countries have much more restrictive gun laws than those of the U.S. In 2017, Canada had a homicide rate of almost 2 per 100,00 — a bit higher than most European countries, but significantly lower than the U.S. homicide rate of 5 per 100,000. However, Mexico’s 2017 homicide rate was much higher at a whopping 25 per 100,000.

What’s responsible for Canada’s relative peace and Mexico’s relative violence? That’s a complicated question far beyond the scope of this piece. What we can say for certain, though, is that “guns” and “gun laws” are not the fundamental answer. If it were that simple, the United States — with by far the most guns and the most permissive gun laws of the three — would be the most violent, with Canada (a country with more permissive gun laws and twice as many guns per capita as Mexico) close behind, and Mexico as the most peaceful of three.

In reality, not only is Mexico more violent than the U.S. and Canada, it’s more violent by an enormous degree. Once again, we see that “guns” and “gun control” (or the lack thereof) fail to explain differences in observed levels of violence.

4. The geographic distribution of the United States’ violence is extremely uneven.

In 2018, 16 U.S. states had 2.5 or fewer homicides per 100,000 people. The lowest homicide rates among these states are comparable to European averages, while the highest edge out the Canadian average.

But then there’s Louisiana with over 11 homicides per 100,000 people. And Missouri, with almost 10.

So while it’s true that the U.S. is, on average, more violent than Europe, it’s also true that there are a lot of places in the U.S. that are about as peaceful as Europe. European violence, by contrast, doesn’t have these same peaks and valleys of geographical distribution — homicide rates of western Europe are uniformly near 1 (+/- 1) per 100,000. (Interestingly, Switzerland, an “outlier” at only 0.5 per 100,000, has more guns per capita than any other European country.)

Do the areas of the U.S. with the highest rates of violence also have the most permissive gun laws? No. The magazine Guns and Ammo ranked each state by the gun-friendliness of its laws — the farther down the list (that is, the higher the value of its rank number) that a state is, the more restrictive its gun policies are. In the chart below, each state has been plotted according to its 2018 gun-friendliness rank and its 2018 homicide rate. (The far outlier is Washington, DC.)

As you can see, there’s no correlation at all between gun-friendly laws and homicide rates. While the Guns & Ammo rankings are of course subjective and prone to dispute, they would need to be wildly off base in order to even introduce the possibility of statistically significant correlation.

If gun laws don’t explain the uneven distribution of gun violence, why, then, is violence so unevenly distributed? That’s another important question without an easy and obvious answer. For our purposes, though, it’s sufficient to simply observe that gun policy clearly doesn’t explain the variability.

Some gun control proponents have argued that differences in state/local gun control are mostly meaningless because it’s easy for people to simply import guns from other jurisdictions: guns remain readily available pretty much everywhere, despite state or municipal gun controls. Therefore, national-level gun control is needed to meaningfully curb violence.

It’s true that, for those willing to break laws, guns are readily available everywhere in the United States, despite varying degrees of gun control in different jurisdictions. But if it were true that national-level gun control would result in uniformly low levels of gun violence, then we should expect to see a uniformly high level of violence within the existing (relatively) permissive framework. Instead, we observe Louisiana, with a homicide rate five times higher than that observed in Utah — my very gun-friendly home state. The argument that national-level gun control would resolve the apparent disconnect between gun control and violence fails.

The extreme unevenness of violence within the United States casts further doubt upon the narrative that said violence is a gun policy problem.

5. American violence is not only geographically uneven — it’s extremely demographically uneven as well.

Violence in America varies tremendously not only by geography, but also by demography. For example, in 2018, over half of the United States’ murder victims were black, despite the fact that black Americans comprise only 13.4% of the the U.S. population — a black American is seven times more likely to be a homicide victim than a white American. Perpetrators of homicide are also about seven times more likely to be black themselves.

If guns were the fundamental driver of America’s violence problem, we would not see this disparity. Black Americans have significantly lower rates of gun ownership than white Americans. Moreover, black Americans comprise a much larger proportion of the United States’ urban population than the rural or suburban population — and urban areas have much lower rates of gun ownership.

Guns don’t explain the demographic disparity — so what does? Well, the socioeconomic conditions fostered by centuries of slavery, legal inequality, and ongoing institutional discrimination would probably be a good place to start looking for an answer. (It’s worth noting that gun control has, historically, been one instrument of those very forms of oppression.)

In addition to showing the disconnect between guns and America’s violence problem, the demographic disparities in violence are important for another reason: Americans’ perceptions of gun violence are shaped largely by a few high-profile mass shooting incidents, featuring predominantly white murderers and white victims. Considering the share of airtime allotted to these tragedies, one might think that they’re representative of America’s gun violence. In fact, they’re extremely unusual events that comprise a tiny proportion of America’s gun violence. Therefore, policies intended to address these events in particular — such as “assault weapons bans” — are, almost by definition, poorly crafted to address the realities of the problem. A focus on high-profile mass shootings actually ignores the vast majority of America’s gun violence victims.

Better policy decisions might emerge from a more realistic understanding of what violence in America actually looks like, but that understanding will only come with the acknowledgement that guns are not the fundamental driver of American violence.

Conclusion

At first glance, a comparison of American violence and European violence is a prima facie case for stringent gun control. However, a closer examination of American violence reveals that it has little relationship to guns or gun policy. The underlying sociological characteristics that make America more violent than Europe are very poorly understood and warrant further study. As the first step of that important work, researchers should acknowledge that simply attributing American violence to guns and permissive gun policy does not accurately capture the reality of the problem.

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