'Gun Violence in America Is Off the Chart'

In August 2012, Fareed Zakaria wrote a piece for Time magazine in which he asserted that "gun violence in America is off the chart compared with every other country on the planet. The gun homicide rate per capita in the U.S. is 30 times that of Britain and Australia."

Because the arguments he made then are being parroted anew in the drive for gun control, his assertions cry out for examination in light of the facts. To start, why would he single out the "gun homicide" rate rather than the total homicide rate? I know a couple whose son was beaten on the back of the head with a tire iron. While his parents are bitter that neither offender was charged, I never heard them say, "Well, at least Tom was murdered with a blunt instrument rather than a gun."

Unfortunately, Mr. Zakaria neglects to document the sources for his facts, if indeed they are facts. Though holding a PhD from Yale and serving as a trustee for that institution, he does not recognize plagiarism when he commits it -- he issued an "unapologetic apology" for stealing much of his article and was suspended from publishing in Time for a month. Well, he did not call it stealing, merely a "terrible mistake ... a serious lapse." But he will be happy to talk to your Rotary Club -- his fee is only $75,000.

Let's look at homicide rates as reported in the 2011 Global Study on Homicide, conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The latest year with the most complete data is 2008, used here. The total homicide rate for the US was 4.1 times that of the UK and 4.5 times that for Australia. Still not good, but nowhere close to the "30 times" Mr. Zakaria laments.

The UN Global Study has data on 187 countries, ranging from a high of 61.3 per 100,000 in Honduras to 0 in Palau. Where was the United States? Number 99, with 5.4 homicides per 100,000. Over half the countries in the world had a homicide rate higher than ours.

Homicide in Developed Countries

Because admitting that the US homicide rate is low compared to over half the world's countries would undercut their arguments, gun-controllers instead compare us to "rich" or "developed" nations -- carefully cherry picked, of course. I cannot count how many articles I have read about the rapid expansion of the middle-class in Mexico, about Brazil's status amongst the rapidly rising BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China), etc. Mexico's homicide rate in 2008 was 2.4 times greater than that of the US, Brazil's 4.2 times greater. Somehow these countries are ignored when someone like Mr. Zakaria wants to make a point.

Of course, statistics always need qualification. For instance, the murder rate in the US would be higher were it not for the improvement in emergency room procedures in the past 10 years alone. On the other hand, homicides for many Third World countries are understated for a variety of reasons: they lack reliable, centralized databases, people are hesitant to report crimes to a corrupt police force, and so on. In addition, governments have plenty of incentive to understate their homicide rates, such as encouraging investment or not scaring away tourists. In short, many of the figures contained in the UN Global Study are probably too low.

Small versus Large Countries

There is another problem with comparing every country on the globe head to head: the vast differences in population size and makeup. For instance, Palau, an island nation in Micronesia, has a population of 21,000 and a homicide rate of zero. They could have two murders next year and suddenly move up to position 68. Comparing a country the size of the US, with 315 million people, to a country the size of Palau makes no sense. I am fairly confident there are many American cities with populations of 20,000 with a homicide rate of zero.

Homicide rates within the US vary tremendously by locality, as data from the US Census Bureau shows. For 2009, the high was 24.2 per 100,000 (District of Columbia) and the low 0.9 (New Hampshire). Moreover, New Hampshire is only half as murderous as Belgium, one of the "rich" or "developed" nations writers like Mr. Zakaria are so fond of comparing us to. In fact, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Utah, and Vermont all have rates lower than Belgium's.

Mr. Zakaria finds a "blindingly obvious causal connection" between "easier access to guns" and homicide rates. If that is so, why does the nation's capital, with some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country, have a homicide rate nearly 27 times higher than that of New Hampshire ("Live Free or Die"), which has some of the most permissive gun laws (open carry without license, concealed carry licenses for $10)? Why does Illinois, likewise boasting extremely restrictive gun laws, have a rate over 9 times higher than New Hampshire's? If there is a "blindingly obvious causal connection," could it be that high homicide rates go hand in hand with restrictive gun laws? Or could the problem be with people, human beings, rather than inanimate objects?


Shortly after being sworn in as Attorney General, Eric Holder told an interviewer that the US is "essentially a nation of cowards ... we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about things racial." I don't know if Mr. Holder is an "average American," but here's a small contribution to the national dialogue on "things racial" from the Bureau of Justice Statistics:

In 2008, the homicide victimization rate for blacks (19.6 homicides per 100,000) was 6 times higher than the rate for whites (3.3 homicides per 100,000) ... the offending rate for blacks (24.7 offenders per 100,000) was 7 times higher than the rate for whites (3.4 offenders per 100,000).

Guns from Mexico?

Just before New Years I was channel surfing and paused upon seeing the stern visage of the Rev. Jesse Jackson opining on the 500 murders in Chicago in 2012. He said he was not going to accept that, and added, "These guns come from the suburbs and from Mexico." Mexico? The advocates of gun control have been telling us for years that guns flow from the US to Mexico. While it has always been debatable how many of Mexico's weapons come from America, we do know that well over 2,000 were delivered to the drug cartels courtesy of our own federal government through Operation Fast & Furious. Now we are to believe that the bad guys in Chicago transport weapons across an international border and over 1,300 miles north?

Gun-Free Households

Then there is Amitai Etzioni, University Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University, writing on the Huffington Post. He urges everyone to put up a "gun free" sign in their home, apartment or condo and counsels parents not to allow their children to play in homes without the signs. Can't we just declare the whole world "gun free" and eliminate murder?

David Gregory, in a recent interview on NBC with Wayne LaPierre, head of the National Rifle Association, mocked the notion of posting armed guards in schools. As it happens, Mr. Gregory sends his children to Sidwell Friends School, where the children of presidents traditionally go (Amy Carter and Chelsea Clinton studied there, as do Sasha and Malia Obama). With tuition at $34,000, Sidwell caters to millionaires and billionaires.

The "Friends" in the school's name refers to the Society of Friends (Quakers) who run it. Sidwell has an 11-member security department, many of them police officers (presumably armed, though it is difficult to know). These are in addition to the Secret Service detail that protects the Obamas' two daughters. It is a delicious irony that Quakers, dedicated pacifists, might welcome so many guns in their midst.

Here's a question for Professor Etzioni: Should David Gregory refuse to let his children play with Sasha or Malia because the White House is not gun free? If signs are so effective, here's an opportunity for the president to lead from the front by disarming the Secret Service and hanging "Gun-Free Zone" signs on the railings around the presidential mansion.

The Mentally Ill

What can be done? How about legislation making it easier to commit the mentally ill. Most were deinstitutionalized in the 60s and 70s? Between 1955 and 2000, the number of state psychiatric hospital beds was reduced by 93%. The campaign to release inmates was largely driven by: 1) the belief that the unstable could simply take medications and live in the community; and 2) cases of wrongful committal (yeah, man, the people that are locked up are the only sane ones, man, just watch One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest). Were people wrongfully committed to mental hospitals? No doubt. Are people wrongfully imprisoned? Of course. Is that sufficient reason to dismantle our criminal justice system? Are schizophrenics better off pushing a shopping cart, jibbering to themselves, and sleeping under overpasses? But, someone says, most of the disturbed are harmless. True. But how many Jared Loughners, James Holmeses, and Adam Lanzas can we tolerate wandering around among us?

Getting someone committed in Connecticut is nearly impossible:

Police said they had no evidence Lanza had been medicated when the killings occurred. But even if Lanza had a proven history of mental illness, having him forcibly committed would have been nearly impossible.

Connecticut is one of a handful of states in America that does not have an "assisted outpatient treatment" law. Under AOT laws -- the kind proposed and ignored earlier this year in Connecticut -- states can force a mentally ill person into treatment if there is a risk of harm to others. Without them, states typically cannot institutionalize someone unless they've already done harm to themselves or others.

What organization was largely responsible for defeating the bill to make involuntary commitment easier? The ACLU.

The suggestion that we make involuntary commitment easier raises outcries from advocates of personal freedom on both the right and left. But the sad truth is that the treatment mental professionals offer the severely disturbed is to: 1) prescribe psychotropics and hope they take them; or 2) prescribe psychotropics and institutionalize them, where they are forced to take their meds. The second option is usually impossible due to both the law and the lack of beds.

I know a woman whose highly intelligent son became schizophrenic in college and, without going into specifics, became a serious threat to himself and others. The court ordered him to stay on his medications, which he has -- so far. Will he do so for the rest of his life? Who knows, because the price the drugs exact is greatly diminished mental capacity. He is employed by a large retail chain as a box boy with no hope of advancement. The heartbreaking part is that he knows he has diminished capacity: not long ago he said, "Mom, remember when I used to be smart?" But distressing as his story is, far more tragic is a Jared Loughner or Adam Lanza living freely among us.

Henry Percy is the nom de guerre for a technical writer living in Arizona. He may be reached at saler.50d [at] gmail.com.

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