Sunday, October 4, 2015

Why Does the US Have the Worst Murder Rate In The Advanced World? It Does Not.

There has been another public mass shooting at a US school.  This time is was in my home state of Oregon.  Immediately afterward everybody fell back to their angry positions, and rather than taking a day or two to process the grief and tragedy of yet another random massacre, the angry yelling of prepared "arguments" began.  I do not want to write about gun control, or gun rights, or terrorism, or enter into the "debate" in any way right now, I merely want to draw attention to a ubiquitous lie founded on racism and prejudice.


I wish that the focus in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy could be on the lives lost, rather than being an excuse for the angry resumption of cultural debates.  The debate is worth having, but not before we even know how many people are dead.  In this case, not counting the shooter, the number is 9, and each of them has a name and a story.


The basic outlines of this "debate" should be clear to everyone.  On one side you have the argument for gun control, and on the other you have the argument for gun rights.  But these two basic camps are not representative of the actual arguments that are made by either side.  The majority of Americans may fall into the range of people who want things like universal background checks for gun purchases, along with waiting periods, but the arguments that are made by either side of the debate have nothing to do with the middle ground.  Both sides base their "arguments" on emotional appeals, distortions, half-truths, and outright falsehoods.  This post is about one of those outright falsehoods, the often stated claim that the US is the only "advanced" country where this kind of violence occurs.

The claim that the US is exceptional in its rates of murder/violence/gun-violence comes in a variety of false flavors.  The degree to which the various claims about US gun violence being exceptional among the nations of the world are false varies.  There are the ridiculous claims that should be self evidently absurdly false to anyone, claims like "the US has the highest murder rate in the world."  The US is not even among the top 50% of national murder rates.  But the lie that is being circulated most aggressively right now is the various flavors of the claim that the US has the highest murder rate among advanced countries (other variations include: only country where mass shootings occur regularly, highest rate of gun deaths, highest rate of gun violence, etc.).  The one thing that all of these claims has in common is that the only way that they could be considered true is if you construct a definition of "advanced" (or "developed," or "modern") that defines "advanced" as having a lower gun violence rate.

Fortunately for proponents of this idea, there is an easy group to use for this formulation, NATO (plus Japan).  The term "advanced," as used, means: Majority white, Western European Dominated Culture, preferably a colonial power, and NOT Eastern European (plus Japan).  Any formulation of the definition of "advanced" has to exclude Russia in order to make the statement true, since Russia has fewer guns, strict gun laws, more murders (both by rate AND by total despite having less than half the population of the US), and still has periodic mass shootings.

What would Russia have to do to be considered advanced?  Would it need to have one of the largest economies in the world, Check; one of the most powerful militiaries, check; huge cultural sphere, check; a permanent seat on the UN security council, check.  The list can go on, there is no definition of "advanced" that I can think of other than "Russians don't count" that could exclude Russia while including the US, unless part of the definition of "advanced" is "plays nicely with us."

Of course it goes without saying that "advanced" does not apply to brown people.  Brown people live in places that are for colonization, they are incapable of being advanced.  So Brazil is right out despite having the 8th largest economy in the world (7th largest if you go by Purchasing Power Parity) and being the 5th largest country by population and area.

What I am trying to drive home, is that the term "advanced" as it is used to describe countries, is not based on reality, it is based on prejudice.  Countries we don't like are not considered modern, nor are countries that are non-white.

But what about Japan?  Japan has a murder rate of 0.3 per 100,000 compared to the US 4.7, and they are usually included though they are not white.  This is a case where cross cultural comparisons are not very reliable.  First you have to understand that it is a cultural truth that in Japan all murders are solved, one can simply accept that at face value, or one can ask if perhaps some unknowable number of the suicides (which occur at twice the rate of the US) are in fact unsolved murders.  It seems more likely to me that a combination of lower homicide rate and fudging of official statistics is at play.
Suicide rates of a few countries

If we combine suicides and homicides the combined rate for Japan is 20.2, the combined rate for the US is 14.8.  Since the majority of gun deaths are suicides in the US, by a 2 to 1 margin, this would be a more honest comparison of the death rates from violence (if we include self harm as violence).

This reveals just a little bit of the complexity of trying to engage in cross cultural comparisons of statistics.  Different cultures organize statistics differently, and different cultures have stronger aversions to different things.  Some countries (*cough* China *cough*) publish official statistics that seem to have no reliable relationship to reality, and others publish numbers that seem fudged.

Some countries, for religious reasons have stronger aversions to suicide.  Mexico is an example of this, they are kind of the inverse of Japan.  Mexico, like most Catholic countries, has a very low suicide rate.  The rate of suicide in Mexico is only 4.4, less than half that of the US.  One can accept that at face value, or one can think that perhaps the true rate of suicide is fudged by lumping ambiguous or unsolved incidents in with murder (combined rate 25.9).


Making sweeping global statements about violence is extremely problematic.  Particularly when one tries to make simple cross cultural comparisons of issues that are viewed differently in other cultures.


Of course, sometimes direct comparisons are possible.  Some countries, like Canada, are similar enough to the US both culturally, legally, transparency, and in statistical gathering methodology to facilitate direct comparisons.  Canada does have a much lower murder rate than the US, 1.6 to the US' 4.7.  The Canadian suicide rate runs almost identical to the US, 10.2 to the US' 10.1 (this would seem to indicate that the ease of access to guns does not have a strong effect on suicide rates overall, but this is an even murkier subject than the gun/homicide link.  I would not advise trying to draw conclusions).  So we can see that even when we combine suicide and homicide, Canada does significantly better than the US.

Which brings me to my last point.  Don't read this as a blanket argument against having a meaningful discussion about gun-control or the role of violence in our society.  We should be trying to improve.  We do have a problem.  But propagating lies does not help the discussion, it simply exacerbates the Balkanization of positions on this issue.

Let's be clear here.  The Umpqua shooting did not take place in a "Gun Free Zone," because Oregon colleges cannot legally be "Gun Free Zones."  The pro-gun claims that this is the result of gun prohibition are every bit as false as the "advanced country" bit.

But this article is not an attempt to address gun control in the US, nor is it an attempt to address violence in the US.  It is simply an attempt to call out a pervasive falsehood.