The United States is a uniquely violent country among high-income democracies. And by the best available data on homicides, the US has always been more violent. Homicides are useful to look at because we generally have the best data on these (murders are the most likely crime to be reported) and it’s the most serious of all violent crimes.
Just how much more violent is the US than other high-income democracies? As measured by the homicide rate, about 6-7 times as violent. We can see this first by comparing the US to several European countries (and a few groupings of similar countries).
Let me make a few things clear about this chart. First, this is data for homicides, which are typically defined as interpersonal violence. Thus, it excludes deaths on the battlefield, genocides, acts of terrorism (generally speaking), and other deaths of this nature. That’s how it is defined. If we plotted a chart of battlefield deaths, it would look quite different, but there’s not much good reason to combine these different forms of violent death.
On the specifics of the chart, prior to 1990 these data are averages from multiple observations over multi-year timespans (generally 25 or 50 years). The data on European countries comes from a paper by Eisner on long-term crime trends (Table 1). The countries chosen are from this paper, as are the years chosen. Remember that historical data is always imperfect, but these are some of the best estimates available. For the US, I used Figure 5 from this paper by Tcherni-Buzzeo, and did my best to make the timeframes comparable to the Eisner data. The data are not perfect, but I think they are about as close as we can get to long-run comparisons. For the data from 1990 forward, I use the IHME Global Burden of Disease study, and the death rates from interpersonal violence (to match Eisner, I average across grouped countries).
When we average across all the European countries in the first chart and compare the US to Europe, we can see that the US has always been more violent, though the 20th century onwards does seem to show even more violence in the US relative to Europe. (These charts are slightly different from some that I posted on Twitter recently, especially the pre-1990 data as I tried to more carefully use the same periods for the averages — still only take this a rough guide).
And what is the main form by which this violence is carried out? In the US, it is undeniably clear: firearms. Between 1999 and 2020, there were almost 400,000 homicides in the US (using CDC data). Over 275,000 of these, or about 70%, were carried out with firearms. The next largest category is murder with a knife or other sharp object, with about 10% of murders. And homicides have become even more gun-focused in recent years: about 80% of murders in 2020-21 were committed with guns.
So, there’s the data. But the important social scientific question is: Can we do anything about it? Are there any public policies, either about guns or other things, that will reduce gun violence? Could restrictions on gun use actually increase homicides, since no doubt guns are also used defensively?
Here is where my expertise ends (my co-blogger Mike Makowsky is much more qualified on this topic, and I hope he writes more soon). But plenty of other social scientists have examined these questions, so I turn to those issue experts to learn more. The best summary of the research on gun violence that I have found is not in an academic paper, but a Twitter thread by economist Jennifer Doleac. I strongly encourage you to read that thread and browse the papers linked, but let me give you my summary of it.
First, let’s be clear that we are talking about gun violence generally, not just mass shootings. Mass shootings are horrific, especially at places like elementary schools, but they are still too rare for good social scientific analysis of the causes and potential policy solutions. Mass shootings fall into the strange category of “frequent enough to be tragic, but still too rare to study them robustly.” And mass shootings are tiny percentage of all gun homicides. I’ll also focus on the effect or non-effect on gun homicides, though of course other things matter too (I mention a few, such as other crimes, as well as gun suicides).
- Gun shows don’t increase gun violence.
- Stand-your-ground laws increase gun violence (about 8%).
- Right to carry laws: tons of research on this, hard to summarize well, but let me try. RTC laws generally reduce murder (perhaps 12-14%), but the effect on other crime is ambiguous and depends on the timeframe (e.g., decreases in rapes and robberies in the 1990s, but increases in those crimes in the 2000s). If the only thing you’ve read or heard about on RTC laws is from John Lott, please read more. He is a contributor to this literature, but not the only contributor and his research is not definitive (see the papers in Doleac’s thread).
- Child access prevention laws don’t decrease gun violence (though they may have other beneficial effects related to guns, and another recent paper suggests these laws might also reduce homicides by 17% among juveniles).
- Juvenile gun bans don’t reduce gun homicides.
- Purchase delay restrictions don’t reduce homicides (though they may reduce suicides).
- Restricting gun access for those convicted of domestic violence does reduce gun homicides (by 17% among female intimate partners).
I don’t mean to be defeatist, but in looking through this list, I don’t see a ton of public policies that will obviously make a big difference in gun violence. Restricting access to guns for those convicted of domestic violence seems the most promising — but we already have a federal law on that. Right-to-carry laws have a huge body of research, unfortunately with no clearly obvious outcomes that I can see (but perhaps there is a really good recent synthesis of the literature that I haven’t seen). But most policies don’t seem to matter (child access prevention laws seem promising).
One policy I didn’t list is assault weapons bans. That’s because there were no papers in Doleac’s thread on this policy. And so far as I can tell, there aren’t many good papers on this at all. There is one recent paper by Mark Gius suggests that the assault weapons bans do reduce mass shooting gun deaths, but another paper by the same author shows that AWBs don’t reduce overall gun violence. Reducing mass shootings is a worthwhile public policy, but even if the US completely eliminated all mass shootings (which would be great!) we would still have the highest rates of gun violence and homicide among our peer nations.
And it’s not completely surprising that AWBs would reduce mass shootings, since rifles are very common in mass shootings, but uncommon in gun violence generally. In the past decade, there have been at least 70,000 homicides committed with handguns, 20 times the number committed with rifles. Handguns are not affected by AWBs, but many rifles are.
In the end, I don’t really know what should be done about gun violence. To me, it’s an extremely important question and social issue, but one where we don’t actually know a lot about what works (despite much well-done research). Easy explanations, such as the War on Drugs, can’t explain everything — the US had much higher homicide rates before the War on Drugs, and drugs are illegal throughout much of Europe too (much I would like to see this “war” ended). The widespread availability of guns is no doubt part of the problem (and some of the research in Doleac’s thread points to this), but it’s hard to see how you reduce the number of guns in circulation in the US at this point in history.
Sometimes in the end, research doesn’t provide a good guide for policy. But it can tell you what things might not work.