In the wake of the tragedies like the one that occurred in Las Vegas last weekend, we hear a lot about how the United States is in a “class of its own” when it comes to gun violence. According to the latest data from the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based research initiative that tracks guns, the U.S. led the world with an average of 2.7 gun homicides for every 100,000 people between 2010 and 2015, more than 5 times as many as the next closest country. Statistics such as these, when coupled with the relative ease in legally obtaining firearms in the United States vs. the rest of the world, have been cited by many otherwise reasonable people as “Exhibit A” in the case for stricter gun control laws in the U.S.
The problem with this approach is that it focuses solely on homicides committed using a gun.
According to a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) study, when you compare overall intentional homicide rates (regardless of the weapon used) with the rest of the world, the United States finishes roughly around the middle of the pack, ranking 94th out of the 219 countries included in the study. This is a pretty significant difference considering that, in reality, the U.S. likely ranks even lower when you consider that countries who likely under-report or fail to include murders carried out by their own government are ranked beneath us. Examples include such human rights luminaries as China, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and Saudi Arabia just to name a few.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that the country with the highest rates of gun ownership in the world would also have the highest rates of gun homicides. However, as illustrated above, it hardly paints the whole picture. Worse still, the focus on “how” these kinds of atrocities are committed rather than on “why” they are committed has seemingly prevented the core issues from being addressed. For example, 1 in 5 gun deaths in the U.S. are young men aged 15 to 34, men most likely to die at the hands of other young men due to gang loyalties or other street violence resulting directly from the failed War on Drugs. It’s worth noting as well that the weapons used in these kinds of crimes are rarely legally obtained, limiting the impact of additional restrictions imposed on legal gun ownership.
Mass-shooting incidents such as what occurred in Las Vegas last weekend, while heartbreakingly tragic, make up a relatively small portion of the total gun homicides in the U.S. Still, we all want to find a way to prevent them from happening again and again in the future. The perpetrator in Las Vegas would have passed every background check known to man, and the instructions on how to make the modifications required to make a semi-automatic weapon mimic a fully automatic one are but a Google search away for anyone. Meanwhile, discussion of issues such as inadequate mental health laws, access to mental healthcare, PTSD recovery, and focusing on treatment for people with drug problems fall by the wayside while we continue to debate our nation’s gun laws.
If we are truly concerned with stopping another tragedy like the one that occurred in Las Vegas, perhaps it’s time to start focusing more on the “why” than the “how”.