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Gun Violence: Comparing The U.S. With Other Countries

Nov 6, 2017
Originally published on November 8, 2017 2:11 am

Editor's Note: This story was originally published in October and has been republished with updates in the wake of the shooting Sunday in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

Barely a month after the massacre in Las Vegas, another horrific attack has underscored the persistence of gun violence in the United States. At least 26 people are dead after the shooting this Sunday at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

If the mounting death toll has you thinking that attacks like this seem to be more frequent in the United States than in other rich nations, you're right. Statistics on the rates of gun violence unrelated to conflict underscore just how outsize U.S. rates of gun deaths are compared with those in much of the rest of the world.

Take countries with the top indicators of socioeconomic success — income per person and average education level, for instance. The United States ranks ninth in the world among them, bested only by the likes of Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Iceland, Andorra, Canada and Finland.

Those countries all also enjoy low rates of gun violence, but the U.S. has the 31st highest rate in the world: 3.85 deaths due to gun violence per 100,000 people in 2016. That was eight times higher than the rate in Canada, which had 0.48 deaths per 100,000 people — and 27 times higher than the one in Denmark, which had 0.14 deaths per 100,000.

The numbers come from a massive database maintained by the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which tracks lives lost in every country, in every year, by every possible cause of death. The figures for 2016 were released this fall. As in previous years, the data paint a fairly rosy picture for much of the world, with deaths due to gun violence rare even in many countries that are extremely poor — such as Bangladesh and Laos, which saw 0.16 deaths and 0.13 deaths respectively per 100,000 people.

Prosperous Asian countries such as Singapore and Japan boast the absolute lowest rates, though the United Kingdom and Germany are in almost as good shape.

"It is a little surprising that a country like ours should have this level of gun violence," says Ali Mokdad, a professor of global health and epidemiology at the IHME. "If you compare us to other well-off countries, we really stand out."

To be sure, there are quite a few countries where gun violence is a substantially larger problem than in the United States — particularly in Central America and the Caribbean. Mokdad says a major driver is the large presence of gangs and drug trafficking. "The gangs and drug traffickers fight amongst themselves to get more territory, and they fight the police," says Mokdad. And citizens who are not involved are often caught in the crossfire.

Mokdad said drug trafficking may also be a driving factor in two Asian countries that have unusually large rates of violent gun deaths for their region: the Philippines and Thailand.

With the casualties due to armed conflicts factored out, even in conflict-ridden regions such as the Middle East, the U.S. rate is worse than in all but one country: Iraq.

The U.S. gun violence death rate is also higher than nearly all countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including many that are among the world's poorest.

One more way to consider this data: The IHME also estimates what it would expect a country's rate of gun violence deaths to be based solely on its socioeconomic status. By that measure, the U.S. should only be seeing 0.79 deaths per 100,000 people — almost five times less than its actual rate of 3.85 deaths per 100,000.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now, the prevalence of domestic violence in the U.S. is comparable to what you see in many wealthy European countries. What is not comparable is the rate of gun violence. NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: When it comes to the key measures of socioeconomic success, the U.S. consistently scores near the top. Chris Murray is director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.

CHRIS MURRAY: Well, in terms of development, we're one of the most developed countries in the world, you know, one of the highest income, highest levels of education.

AIZENMAN: And on all those indicators combined, the U.S. ranks ninth, right up there with countries like Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Finland, Canada. But those countries also all enjoy very low rates of death by gun violence. By contrast, in the U.S., nearly four people out of every 100,000 are killed with a firearm each year.

MURRAY: Twenty-seven times higher than what you see in Denmark, almost 10 times higher than what you see in Canada, so that's really quite extraordinary.

AIZENMAN: These statistics are from a giant database maintained by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation that tracks every death every year in every country by every possible cause. The latest figures covering 2016 came out earlier this fall. We should note that the violent gun death rates do not include situations involving armed conflict or suicide. And Murray says even if you compare the U.S. picture on this to not just other wealthy countries but to all countries, the U.S. comes out pretty terribly.

MURRAY: The U.S. would be towards the bottom of all countries. They'd be in the bottom 30 of all, you know, 195 countries that we look at.

AIZENMAN: Some of the world's poorest nations have lower violent gun death rates than the U.S.

MURRAY: Many, if not most, countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

AIZENMAN: And veering towards South Asia, Bangladesh and Laos. Of course, there are countries that have far worse stats than the U.S., mainly in Central America and some parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras.

MURRAY: They have rates that can be 10 times higher than the U.S.

AIZENMAN: Murray says drug trafficking and gang violence in those places is probably a major driver. So what's behind the outsized gun violence rates in the U.S.?

MURRAY: Well, you know, I think if you look at the data on number of guns per capita in the U.S., it's much higher than countries at the same level of development status.

AIZENMAN: And while the availability of guns here is not the only factor, he says it's certainly got to be part of the explanation. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.

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