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Suicide, homicide and gun control laws: are they related?

Proponents of strict gun-control laws often mention the high rate of violence in America, although actual figures are rarely given. It would be easy to conclude that we have the highest homicide rate of any nation, and a high suicide rate as well.

Even well informed persons may accept these notions as established facts, but in reality they are far from correct. The accompanying table gives suicide and homicide rates per 100,000 population for each nation. It is modified from the "Demographic Yearbook 1981," published by the United Nations Statistical Office, New York, in 1983. The figures are for the most recent available year, usually 1979 or 1980. The U.S. homicide figure is for 1982 and is taken from "Crime in the United STates 1982," published by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and reprinted in the F.B.I. Law Enforcement Bulletin, October, 1983.

The U.N. homicide figures run a bit higher than those from the F.B.I. because the U.N. includes justifiable homicide and war, but the figures are close enough for accurate comparisons of nations. The U.S. suicide figure is also for 1982 and is taken from "Monthly Vital Statistics Report," October 5,1983, published by the Department of Health and Human Services. In some cases (for example, East Germany) suicide and homicide figures are no longer released, so it was necessary to go back as far as 1970 for the most recent figures. Of course, the accuracy of the figures depends on the veracity of each government. Some nations do not release any mortality data. Hence the U.S.S.R., the People's Republic of China, and many other nations are not included.

What can we conclude from these figures? In regard to suicide rates, it is obvious that the U.S.A. lies in the middle range, with many nations--including those in Eastern and Western Europe and Japan--having considerably higher rates. Compared with our rate of 12.0, Hungary has a suicide rate of 44.9, Denmark 31.6, and East Germany 30.5. Nations with strict gun-control laws may have suicide rates that are high (Hungary), intermediate (Japan), or low (England). Moreover, nations with relatively mild laws (U.S.A.) may have rates similar to those with strict laws (Norway), while nations similar in strictness of laws may have rates that are quite different (Norway and Denmark).

Clearly there is no relation between suicide rates and gun-control laws. Indeed, it would even be possible to claim that nations with strict gun-control laws tend to have high suicide rates. Such a claim would ignore many relevant facts. For example, Latin American nations tend to have low suicide rates, but this is almost surely due to religious and cultural factors, not lax gun laws.

Eastern European nations tend to have high suicide rates, but his is probably due to the drab, hopeless life under Communism, not strict gun laws. Nevertheless, a claim that strict gun laws cause suicides is no more illogical, and no less supported by data, than is the often-heard claim that strict gun laws prevent homicides.

Is there a relation between suicide rates and homicide rates? Nations with low suicide rates may have low (Greece), intermediate (Venezuela), or high (Mexico) homicide rates. Nations with high suicide rates may have low (Switzerland), intermediate (Sweden), or high (East Germany) homicide rates. There is a suggestion of an inverse relation, but at least we can say that suicide and homicide rates surely are not positively correlated. This being so, strict gun-control laws certainly cannot reduce both suicide and homicide rates, as some have tried to claim.

Adding suicide and homicide rates to get a "violent death rate" yields interesting results. Judged in this way, the U.S.A. is less violent that 21 other nations, including Austria, Denmark, France, West Germany, Sweden, and even Switzerland. To be sure, we have room for improvement, but clearly this is not the "national disgrace" that some profess to believe.

When it comes to homicide rates, the picture is a bit less clear. The U.S.A. does have a relatively high rate of 9.1, but there are 17 nations that admit to higher rates. Neglecting El Salvador, where a civil war is going on, this leaves 16 nations with reported homicide rates higher than ours: Argentina, Bahamas, Chile, Colombia, Egypt, Fiji, East Germany, Guatemala, Guyana, Mexico, Philippines, Puerto Rico, South Africa (nonwhite), Sweden, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.

Do homicide rates have a relation to strictness of gun-control laws? Some nations with strict laws indeed have low rates (England, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan). But other nations with strict laws have high rates. For example, would you rather be caught carrying a gun illegally by police in the U.S.A., or by those in Argentina, Chile, Egypt, East Germany, Mexico, or South Africa? Moreover, nations that differ widely in gun-control laws and in other respects may have similar homicide rates (U.S.A., Fiji, Sweden, Venezuela), while nations that are similar in gun-control laws may have rates that are quite different (England, Scotland, Australia, Canada, and Northern Ireland).

In order to establish a relation between strict gun-control laws and low homicide rates, a statistician would first affect the homicide rate, such as age, race, and social, economic, religious, cultural and political characteristics of the various nations. This has never been done, and I doubt it can be. There simply is not enough known about these factors to make accurate corrections. For example, the average age of the U.S. population is rising as the "baby boom" generation grows older. This should result in a fall in the homicide rate, because most homicides are committed by young men. In fact, the U.S. homicide rate was 10.2 in 1980, its highest point in this century. The rate was 9.8 in 1981 and 9.1 in 1982. Suppose a new gun-control law had been passed in 1980. Its supporters would point with pride to the 11 percent drop in the homicide rate, blissfully unaware that it would have occurred without their efforts. The recent improvement in the homicide rate may be due in part to stricter anticrime laws and attitudes, but those of us who favor such laws should not fall into the same error. We too must take demographic and other factors into account before we take credit or assess blame for changes in the homicide rate.

To take another example, why is the homicide rate almost eight times higher in Canada than in England? Is it because of Canadian gun laws, which are not quite the same as those in England, or because of political ethnic, racial, economic, religious, cultural, or age differences between the two nations? To pick out one factor while ignoring all the others may make a debating point, but it is bad statistics and bad logic. To use such a poor argument to influence legislation is equally illogical. Worse, it distracts attention from legitimate efforts to reduce crime.

Reality is often more complex and confusing than a comfortable fantasy, but we must face reality before we can hope to influence it for the better. In the fantasy world, the U.S.A. has the highest homicide rate in the world, and a high suicide rate in addition. This notion provides a welcome excuse for self-flagellation to those who believe that most of the evil in the world comes from America. Nations with strict gun-control laws invariably have low rates of homicide and suicide. So the answer is simple--pass stricter gun-control laws. In the real world, on the other hand, the figures are confusing, and there are no simple solutions to complex problems. There is no demonstrable relation between gun-control laws and suicide or homicide rates in various nations. The U.S.A. actually has a lower rate of violent death than some European nations that are held up as models of order. But if we can face these facts, we will be able to seek real solutions to real problems.
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Title Annotation:international suicide and homicide rates and gun control policies
Author:Stolinsky, David C.
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Dec 1, 1984
Words:1342
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