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In wealthy nations of the Western world, U.S. leads, by far, in gun homicides

On an average day, 27 people die by gunshot homicide in the United States. 

A body is covered with a sheet in the intersection of Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard South after a mass shooting at a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip on Sunday night.
REUTERS/Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus

I’m pretty fed up with the vaguely religious notion of “American exceptionalism.” When we say this, do we mean “exceptional” as in “very good?” or “exceptional” as in there are rules for this that apply to others but not to us because we are the “exception” to those rules (because why)?

Anyway, among the rich, Western industrialized nations of the world, we are some kind of exceptional in the category of most likely to die by gunshot wound. And we are exceptional by a very large margin. That probably doesn’t surprise you, but the folks at the Upshot Blog of the New York Times have nailed it down and expressed it in a very powerful way.

They took a list of all the wealthy industrial nations that keep statistics on death by gun violence. (We are not the richest, by the way, as measured by GDP per capita, but on this list we are third behind Luxembourg and Norway). Then, since some of them are so much bigger than others, they took the number of annual deaths by gunshot wound and adjusted it for population, so the comparison is of per capita deaths by gun homicide.

Here, the good ol’ USA is exceptional. Very. We are not just first, we are first by a mile.

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In the good ol’ USA, on an average day, 27 people die by gunshot homicide. (That means they are excluding suicides or accidental shootings, but including all the victims of a mass shootings).

That is by far the most of any rich nation that keeps such statistics. But, of course, we have the biggest population of any of the rich industrial nations (only China and India have bigger populations, and they are not rich).

So, to make the comparison more reasonable and fair, the Upshot piece adjusted the gun death rates of the other rich Western industrial nations to the number of deaths that would occur if they had a population as large as ours. On that basis, the second- and third-highest-ranking rich industrial Western nations in per capita homicides are Canada and not-so-rich Greece, both of which clock in at just under five homicides a day.

Just under five, compared to our 27, and after adjusting for the difference in population size. And those are the second- and third-highest numbers on the list.

Iceland and Norway, with an average gun homicide rate of less than one a day (even after the adjustment for population) are the lowest on the list.

Japan is even lower, much lower, but wasn’t on the graphic because it was limited to Western nations, although Japan has a larger population than most of the countries on the Upshot graphic. Nonetheless, on a gun homicides per capita basis, the United States is more than 300 times higher than Japan.  

To dramatize the gap in per capita gun deaths even more, the authors tried to find another cause of death that was of similar size, in each country, to deaths caused by shooting. In the United States, the rate was about equal to deaths in car accidents. In New Zealand it was equivalent to dying by falling off a ladder. In Japan it was equivalent to death by getting hit by lightning.