The Complexity of US Gun Crime and the Fallacy of Oversimplified Comparisons
By Lianna Brinded | January 4, 2013 8:15 PM EST
The shooting of five people in Swiss village of Daillon, which left three people dead and two wounded, shocked the public because gun crime is particularly low in Switzerland - despite having the third highest rate of ownership in the world.
With only the US and Yemen ranking ahead of Switzerland in ownership rates, Switzerland has become the poster child for staunch gun advocates in the US.
Following the mass shooting in Sandy Hook School, Newtown, Connecticut in December, in which 20 children and six adults died, the fevered debate around US gun ownership and control hit boiling point with the example of Switzerland becoming a winning hand for firearm advocates.
Unhelpfully, the US gun control "debate" has predictably resulted in the same vague and sweeping statements from left and right. This tireless polarity has dogged the issue for decades.
We are told by gun advocates that anyone for the tightening of control are "rabid liberals" while their opponents smite every gun owner with the label "gun nut". Both sides crow about the complexity of the issue in the US, without going into detail.
Staunch gun advocates in the US say, "Well, look at Switzerland, they have high gun ownership but their gun murder rates are low" as if the abundance of guns in the two countries offers an irrefutable like-for-like comparison.
Meanwhile, the other side cries for a blanket ban, which not only would be near impossible but also goes against the varied demographic of who actually owns a gun, especially as 270 million US citizens own a firearm.
It doesn't help that in this day in age, we like bite-size facts and articles under 1,000 words, which exacerbates already oversimplified arguments and resulted in so-called debates that have only garnered a "winner" through intimidating and belittling their opponent.
Regardless of whether you are strong right or left, pro- or anti-, there is no denying there is a problem in the US with gun crime and a lax use of at-face-value statistics is a dangerously myopic approach to addressing the problem.
On the Surface
Sadly in the immediate aftermath of any shooting, political pundits and the public scramble around for what can be done to stop another mass shooting in the US with Switzerland usually called up as an example of how prevalent gun ownership can still lead to a relatively small amount of firearm deaths.
But delve deeper and certain societal trends will be more indicative of why you cannot compare the countries like-for-like.
According to the latest United Nations Surveys on Crime Trends and the Operations of Criminal Justice Systems (CTS), 60 percent of homicides in the US were committed by a firearm - 9,146 deaths.
Out of 25 mass shootings conducted in the US since 2006, more than three quarters of the firearms used were obtained legally.
The US also ranks first by rate of ownership in the world and you can buy guns off the internet, down the road at Dick's Sporting Goods or Wal-mart and at gun shops in each state.
In Switzerland, with an estimated 4.5m guns in a country of just 7.9m people, the number of homicides by firearms totals 57, according to CTS.
The nature of gun ownership, however, is very different to the US, where popping down to your local gun shop isn't on the agenda.
Swiss gun ownership is intrinsically tied to national defence. Every citizen is obligated to serve in the federal army if conscripted should the country be invaded.
The majority of the guns in Switzerland are army-issued and every 18-30-year-old Swiss man - 20,000 a year after screening - has to do three months' military training.
So, why the dramatically low homicide rates, compared with the US?
Gun Ownership Comparisons
There are a number of complex issues that all feed into the prevalence of gun crime. The biggest disparity between comparing the US and Switzerland is the unemployment and poverty rate and scholars have repeatedly linked the rate of poverty with a rise in gun crime.
There are, of course, those who dispute this. But here are the statistics.
The US unemployment rate stood at 7.70 percent in November 2012 but 9 percent for 2011 and 9.6 percent in 2010. From 2006-10, Americans living below the poverty line increased every year from 12.3 percent to 15.1 percent.
Income inequality also rose in 2011, with the Gini Index, a common measure of inequality used by the US Census Bureau, showed a 1.6 percent increase from 2010.
Meanwhile, the Swiss unemployment rate rose slightly to 3.10 percent in November of 2012 from 2.90 percent in October 2012, according to Switzerland's State Secretariat for Economic Affairs.
However, unemployment has averaged comparatively low at 2.8 percent in 2011 and 3.5 percent in 2010. The population below the poverty line for 2010 also ranks at 6.9 percent.
Another issue is why Brazil, which ranks 75th in the world for gun ownership, has such a high firearm murder rate. That stands at 34,678.
Although Brazil has relatively low unemployment levels of 6 percent in 2011 and 6.7 percent in 2010, the population below the poverty line stood at 21.4 percent in 2009, according the latest data from the CIA.
Similarily, Colombia ranks 91st in the world for gun ownership but has over 81 percent of homicides committed by firearm - 12,539 - according to its National Police statistics.
Its unemployment rate was 10.8 percent in 2011, 11.8 percent in 2010 and latest data shows that over a third of the population lives under the poverty line.
Why Not Compare Countries With Tighter Control?
High gun ownership rates in Switzerland and low ownership but high murder rates in Brazil are often used to support the argument that advocates increased ownership for public safety .
However, what these exponents fail to do is address the countries that have had success in tightening control without banning guns altogether.
The UK is one example.
In the wake of Scotland's Dunblane massacre in March 1996, in which 16 children and one adult were shot dead by Thomas Hamilton who walked into a school armed with a range of handguns and opened fire, the Cullen Inquiry was set up. The then Conservative government followed its recommendations and banned all cartridge ammunition handguns, with the exception of .22 calibre single-shot weapons, in England, Scotland and Wales.
While, you are still able to own a gun in the UK, primarily a shotgun, the checks are stringent. Applicants are mainly farmers or those living in isolated locations.
According to CTS and NSO statistics, England and Wales saw only 41 homicides by firearms last year and the number of offences in Scotland in 2011-12 involving firearms more than halved from 2006-07, said the Scottish government.
In Scotland during the 2010-11 period, there were only two fatal and 109 non-fatal injuries.
One month after Dunblane, Australia experienced its worse mass murder in a Tasmanian seaside resort, where a gunman killed 35 and wounded 23.
Prime Minister John Howard tightened gun control legislation and implemented a mass buyback of about one-fifth of all the firearms in circulation. Australia has not had a mass shooting ever since.
According to the country's National Statistics Office, only 30 homicides by a firearm were committed last year.
Another layer of complexity on the argument is the question of background checks and how stringent they really are.
Since Sandy Hook, many people have pointed out that the US already has stringent background checks in place for those who want to buy a gun. Out of the 25 mass shootings in the US since 2006, a majority were mentally ill and, according to Mother Jones, "many displayed signs of it before setting out to kill".
Following the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting in particular, questions were raised about how gunman Seung-hui Cho was able to obtain firearms given his history of mental illness. Subsequently, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Improvement Amendments Act 2007 was enacted to, among other things, provide incentives for states to make more records available for use during firearm-related background checks.
In July 2012, the US Government Accountability Office (Gao) published a report on progress in accessibility records from 2004-11.
At face value, the statistics look promising: the total number of mental health records that states made available to the NICS increased by approximately 800 percent.
But looking behind that headline figure there is still a lot of work to be done.
"States increased the number of mental health records available for use during NICS background checks from 200,000 in October 2004 to 1.2 million in October 2011 but this progress largely reflects the efforts of 12 states, and most states have made little or no progress in providing these records," said the report
"19 Department of Justice [DoJ] and state officials identified technological, legal, and other challenges that hinder states' ability to make these records available. DoJ has made several forms of assistance available to help states provide records - including grants, conferences, and training- and the six states we met generally reported finding these helpful. DoJ has begun to have states share their promising practices during regional meetings, but DoJ has not shared these practices nationally," it added.
But There's More
Unfortunately, there are number of other complexities to explore when it comes to understanding the level of gun crime in the US. One of most dangerous things we can do is to not delve deeper into what causes the problem as well as how making guns widely available only pours more salt into the wound.
Lianna Brinded is a senior business journalist at IBTimes UK. She also holds a Masters in Contemporary War and Peace Studies, specialising in the evolution of military tactics, weapons, ethnic-nationalist conflict and genocide, as well the role of weapons in strengthening or destabilising communities.
She also went to a UK army school and had a brief spell as an NCO in the RAF.
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