The idea that “guns make a nation safer” is not true, according to a study published today in The American Journal of Medicine.
In fact, the study found just the opposite: Countries with a low rate of gun ownership have significantly fewer gun-related deaths than those with a high rate.
Furthermore, more guns did not equal less crime.
For the study, Dr. Sripal Banglore of New York University’s Lagone Medical Center and Dr. Franz Messerli of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons analyzed data for 27 developed countries. Only countries with available data on gun ownership and not currently involved in a civil war were included.
The data used in the analysis was collected from various sources, including the Small Arms Survey, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United Nations Surveys of Crime Trends.
U.S. leads in gun ownership — and gun deaths
The analysis found that the United States has far and away the highest rate of gun ownership, with 88.8 privately owned guns for every 100 people (“almost as many guns as it has people,” Bangalore and Messerli note). The country with the next highest rate is Switzerland, with 45.7 guns per 100 people.
The United States also has the highest firearm-related death rate: 10.2 deaths per 100,000 residents. Switzerland has the third highest rate: 3.84 per 100,000.
At the other end of the spectrum are Japan and the Netherlands. Japan has a gun-ownership rate of 0.6 guns per 100 people, while the Netherlands’ rate is 3.9.
Those two countries also had two of the lowest death-by-gun rates: 0.06/100,000 for Japan and 0.46/100,000 for the Netherlands.
The United Kingdom also ranked low on both lists. It has a gun-ownership rate of 6.2 per 100 people and a gun-death rate of 0.25 per 100,000.
The only country that was a bit of an outlier was South Africa. It had a relatively low gun ownership rate of 12.5/100, but a high (the second-highest, just below the U.S.) gun-related death rate of 9.41/100,000.
Bangalore and Messerli also analyzed the data to determine whether possessing guns would make a country safer in terms of its overall crime rate.
Their conclusion: “There was no significant correlation between guns per capita per country and crime rate, arguing against the notion of more guns translating into less crime.”
The researchers did find a positive correlation between a country’s mental-illness burden — specifically, the prevalence of major depression — and its firearm-related deaths. In general, the more people suffering with depression, the greater the firearm death rate.
But that correlation was not nearly as strong as the one with gun ownership.
Furthermore, the study found no significant correlation between a country’s mental-illness burden and its overall crime rate.
A vicious cycle
“Although correlation is not synonymous with causation,” write Bangalore and Messerli, “it seems conceivable that abundant gun availability facilitates firearm-related deaths. Conversely, high crime rates may instigate widespread anxiety and fear, thereby motivating people to arm themselves and give rise to increased gun ownership, which, in turn, increases availability. The resulting vicious cycle could, bit-by-bit, lead to the polarized status that is now the case with the US.”
“Regardless of exact cause and effect, however,” they add, “the current study debunks the widely quoted hypothesis purporting to show that countries with the higher gun ownership are safer than those with low gun ownership.”
The editors of The American Journal of Medicine decided to publish the study today, two days earlier than originally scheduled, so that journalists could use its findings when reporting on the mass shooting that occurred Monday at the Washington Navy Yard.