Last Saturday, a mass shooter killed 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Just one day later, another gunman opened fire in Dayton, Ohio, killing nine. Unsurprisingly, politicians have used the tragic events as an immediate reason to call for increased gun control. At the end of the day, their claims simplify to two main points; first, that the mass shootings are indicative of a major American violence problem, and second, that this problem exists because we don’t have enough gun control. Both of these points are moot. Mass shootings are, ultimately, a tool that politicians use to further their ends.
Gun Violence vs Homicides
Over the past few days, many stories have published seemingly alarming statistics regarding the United States’ gun violence rate and mass shooting rate. Yes, they’re quite a bit higher than those of the other developed countries of the world. But why is the weapon of choice even this relevant? We should be analyzing homicide rates, period. When someone loses their life at the hand of another, it is a tragedy. It does not matter if that person was stabbed or shot, if it was 20 different events or 20 people at once.
Politicians, though, take great care to make that distinction, only using the latter to bolster their argument. Why? Because mass shootings receive national media attention and inspire national outrage. Last year in Chicago alone, there were more than 530 murders. Compare this to the 116 people in 2018 that lost their lives to a mass shooter throughout the whole country. Which received more of a national spectacle, and which resulted in greater calls for gun control? Naturally, it was the mass shootings.
Mass Shootings as a Political Tool
As a thought experiment, imagine that the United States had zero mass shootings in 2018. Instead, 116 more people were murdered in Chicago. What would a politician say? How about the mainstream media? Without a doubt, praise would ring through the country for its successful elimination of a terrible threat to our existence. The added figures in Chicago would be lucky to get a passing glance, still slightly down from the city’s 650 murders in 2017. If the same number of innocent people died, shouldn’t our reactions be the same?
Yes, there is psychological significance to mass shootings; they instill fear into Americans in places they have traditionally seen as safe and secure. But this fear, which does not represent the actual state of affairs in America, should never be used to deprive people of their ability to purchase their preferred gun. However, that’s exactly what happens every time there’s a major mass shooting.
Though it’s a drop in the bucket in terms of actual homicide rates, politicians from both parties viciously cling to the rhetoric that America is in a state of crisis. Why wouldn’t they? As the saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures; it’s a lot easier to convince the public of those desperate measures when you first convince them that we’re in a time of disaster. Comparing the country’s homicide rates to other developed countries, though, it’s clear that this statement is at best an exaggeration.
At the Top, If You’re Really Selective
The CIA World Factbook releases an annual report of which countries they see as developed. This year, the list is 34 strong, including the semi-independent Faroe Islands, a Danish territory, and Bermuda, the functionally-independent British territory.
The United Nations publishes annual homicide data for member states. The data, which runs as recent as 2017, is available here. It turns out that the United States is not number one among countries it deems developed. South Africa takes that role with a rate of 35.9 per 100,000. Bermuda comes in second with 8.2, and the United States is third with a mere 5.3 per 100,000. So, though the United States is near the top of the list, the rate is a tiny fraction of countries above it.
Some may argue that, despite US opinion, South Africa and Bermuda should not be on the list of developed countries; the UN makes exactly that distinction. Their own list is about as selective, but with a few countries omitted and some others added. Using the UN list, the United States does indeed have the highest homicide rate of developed countries… but not by much.
Lithuania’s 4.5 per 100,000 and Latvia’s 4.2 per 100,000 are not radically different from America. The 2016 figures were neck-and-neck, and in 2015, Lithuania’s 5.9 overshadowed the United States’ 5. Going back just a few more years puts the U.S. below Estonia, which also has made the list for several years running. Yes, many European countries have figures in the 1-2 range. But the United States has had a significantly higher homicide rate than every other developed country exactly once in recent history, and only when using one of these two databanks. Touting this statistic as an American crisis is selective at best and manipulative at worst.
Homicide Rate by US State
It’s also worth noting that each of the European countries in the above comparison is much smaller than the United States. Is it even fair to aggregate the country’s data, knowing how diverse it is? Looking at data from state to state would paint a more accurate picture of whether or not there is a real crisis.
Unsurprisingly, the homicide rate varies dramatically across state lines. Louisana consistently ranks at the top, with more than 12 per 100,000 in 2017. But 17 states, including Connecticut, the location of the Sandy Hook massacre, and Nevada, the site of the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, have rates below 3 per 100,000, reflecting European levels. Are there crises there, or did particular mass shootings receive enough media and political attention to fabricate them?
Does Gun Control Lower Homicide Rates?
Clearly, there is too much violence in America, but the problem is often blown out of proportion. On the other hand, would gun control nonetheless help reduce homicide rates? Probably not.
Two of the biggest flaws in arguments for gun control come in the form of countries: Austria and Switzerland. Both countries have very liberal gun laws; unlike much of Europe, they allow citizens to carry firearms for the purpose of self-defense. In both countries, some guns require licenses, but not all. Both countries also allow the free purchase of semi-automatic weapons.
Despite the relatively lax regulations, which resemble those of many U.S. states, these two nations don’t have more homicides than the rest of Europe. In fact, they’re lower than most of the continent. Switzerland’s 2017 homicide rate was a mere 0.5 per 100,000 people, and Austria’s was only slightly higher, at 0.66. This is noticeably below the figures for Australia (0.8), the UK (1.2), and Canada (1.8), all of which are frequently cited as successful examples of gun control.
Look Out for the Fallout
It’s evident that the factors that really influence homicide rates don’t have anything to do with modern gun control. Culture is a big one: an Old Western duel comes to mind when thinking of Texas, but the same isn’t true for Central Europe. Gun quantity, though, doesn’t appear to matter either; Switzerland ranks third in the world, with nearly a gun per two people.
Politicians calling for gun restrictions in the light of mass shootings are either aware of this data, and intentionally ignoring it, or are blind to the truth of the matter. Or, they value human lives more when they’re taken all at once. In any of these cases, are they really fit to make decisions about what you can and cannot peacefully do? Like it or not, buying a gun is not an act of violence and does not create a victim. And there’s no evidence of a purchase itself contributing to violence.
Be wary, though. The weekend mass shootings weren’t the first time that politicians used a spectacle to further their agendas and try to restrict your freedoms. It also won’t be the last. The next time one occurs, ask yourself who created the crisis: an abundance of homicidal Americans or media conglomerates and politicians looking to push themselves up at your expense?