Why America's Rate of Gun Homicides is Nearly 20x Higher Than Other Nations

October 31st 2014

There have been 87 school shootings in America since the December 2012 carnage at Sandy Hook in Newtown, CT. Given another shooting last week, we decided to interview a gun policy expert to understand our nation's practical barriers toward reducing gun violence. Daniel W. Webster is the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, the deputy director for research at Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence, as well as a professor of health policy and management at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Q: Why is gun control such a contentious issue in the US? How do our laws differ from other industrialized nations? 

Gun control has largely been framed as a cultural issue, versus a safety or public health issue. We see people on one side concerned about the loss of freedom and the possibility of facing restrictions on what types of guns they can own and where they are legally allowed to carry them. On the other side, folks are concerned about the availability of guns, especially to dangerous people, and the high rates of gun violence in the U.S.  For many years, the media and many politicians have only deepened this chasm by failing to report on and consider the large common ground in the middle.  We also suffer from a shortage of really good data to help inform decision-making, though I would argue we certainly know enough to advance many important policies.

In general, our gun laws are much weaker compared to other industrialized nations. Our standards for legal gun ownership are relatively low (you can be convicted of multiple crimes involving violence, guns, drugs, and alcohol abuse or too young to legally drink a beer, yet be able to legally own multiple handguns) and our laws are too weak to hold individuals accountable if they put guns into the hands of criminals. Most other high-income democracies have some form of licensing and registration for those who own handguns with background checks and record-keeping for virtually all transfers of handguns. That is the case in only a handful of states in the U.S.

Q: How about our crime rates? Do we have any more/less gun related deaths than these other nations? 

When you compare the United States to other high-income countries on most measures of violence, we’re average on most measures of violence. But we’re a huge outlier, however, when it comes to lethal violence; our homicide rate is nearly 7 times higher than the average high-income nation and our rate of homicide by firearm is nearly 20 times higher.

Q: How have other countries responded to their "Columbine" and "Newtown" shooting rampages? Surely the US isn't the only country with school shootings. 

The U.S. has more school shootings than any other country. A new report from the FBI confirms what most Americans suspect- that these incidents are increasing.

There are examples of other countries responding to school shootings much more aggressively. In 1996, 16 children ages five and six plus their teacher were killed in a school shooting in Dunblane, Scotland. In response, UK lawmakers banned the private ownership of handguns, giving the country some of the toughest anti-gun legislation in the world.

Q: OK, if the numbers are so staggering who is against stronger gun control laws? They must have some valid reasons to feel this way. 

This is perhaps the most important point I will make here. The vast majority of Americans – including the vast majority of gun owners – support policies designed to keep guns from dangerous people such as universal background checks, stronger oversight of gun dealers, and prohibitions for perpetrators of domestic violence, those who commit serious crimes as juveniles, and individuals convicted of multiple crimes involving drugs or alcohol abuse.  The NRA portrays itself as an organization that speaks for and advocates for gun owners. The reality is that they speak for gun owners with the most extreme views and for the gun industry.

Q: Is it possible to compromise here? Is there a way we can let responsible gun owners hunt, etc while keeping automatic assault weapons out of the hands of our children and others who shouldn't have access?

Yes. In a TEDMED talk I gave earlier this year, I outlined how the U.S. will reduce our murder rates by 30 to 50 percent in the next two decades by adopting smarter gun policies. These policies include: prohibiting high-risk groups such as people who have been convicted of multiple offenses from owning a gun; increasing accountability of gun dealers; universal background checks requiring permits to purchase guns; and use of new technology such as microstamping that helps police link ballistic evidence to the person who purchased the gun used in the crime. Bans on semi-automatic assault weapons are less popular among gun owners than the policies I describe, and would have far less of an impact on reducing the daily gun violence in the U.S. which claims more than 30 lives every day.

If you care about reducing gun violence, pledge to vote this election at OurTime.org