Comparative Death Rates and the Second Amendment

by Roger Alford

The final group of amicus briefs I would like to highlight compares the firearm death rates in different countries to argue for and against gun control. An amicus brief by the American Academy of Pediatrics, et. al. offers an interesting comparative analysis of the firearm death rates in the Untied States and other democratic nations.

The firearms death rate in the United States far surpasses that of other democratic nations. A 1997 study analyzing firearms deaths for children aged 14 or under in 26 industrialized countries found that 86 percent of all deaths occurred in the United States. The rate for firearms homicide alone was 16 times higher in the United States, while the firearms suicide rate was 11 times higher and the firearms unintentional death rate was nine times higher.

In 1995, the firearms death rate in the United States was 13.7 per 100,000. In comparison, the firearms death rates in countries that severely limit access to handguns were significantly lower. For example, in 1995, Canada had a firearms death rate of 3.9 per 100,000; Australia had a rate of 2.9 per 100,000; and England and Wales had rates of 0.4 per 100,000. One of the most glaring distinctions between these countries and the United States is the significantly lower incidents of lethal violence caused by handguns.

Another amicus brief filed by Professors of Criminal Justice makes similar comparisons:

Criminological research has established that the high rate of handgun homicides in the United *7 States is due, at least in part, to the high rate of handgun ownership in the United States. The rate of handgun ownership and the rate of handgun homicides in the United States, when compared to the same data from other countries, illustrate the strong correlation between the availability of handguns and the incidence of handgun homicides…. [T]he United States experiences about four times the level of handgun homicides per 100,000 people than Israel, Sweden, Canada, Australia, and Great Britain combined.

But these arguments did not go unchallenged. The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons argued in an amicus brief that:

The use of handguns in suicide in no way proves that an alternative method would not be used if handguns were unavailable. In fact, the evidence is to the contrary. Japan, Hungary, and Scandinavia all have far more restrictive gun control than the United States, and yet they have suicide rates 2 to 3 times higher than the U.S. For example, the suicide rate in Hungary is 35.38 per 100,000, compared to only 12.06 per 100,000 in the United States.

The AAP Brief relies on a country-by-country comparison in arguing that the firearm related death rate in the United States was much higher in 1995 in the United States than in Canada, Australia, and England and Wales, all of which have restrictive gun control. AAP Brief at 25. But the data for gun deaths in the United States include guns used in self-defense, as in fending off an assault, robbery or rape, and higher homicide rates in the United States existed long before there was gun control in other countries….

Different societies have different confounding factors, such as crime-inducing drug addiction, single-parent families, promotion of violence in the media, and varying approaches to juvenile delinquency and schooling, all of which inevitably affect crime rates. Those confounding factors are best eliminated by looking at the effect of gun control on the same society, and as shown below, gun control typically results in an increase in overall crime rather than a reduction. Gun control is hardly supported if murders by switchblades increase as death by firearms declines.

Another amicus brief filed by Criminologists, Social Scientists, [and] Other Distinguished Scholars also challenged the connection between death rates and gun possession:

The evidence from foreign jurisdictions leads to the same conclusion as the United States data. In general, comparison of “homicide and suicide mortality data for thirty-six nations (including the United States) for the period 1990-1995” to gunstock levels shows “no significant (at the 5% level) association between gun ownership and the total homicide rate.” Additionally, in a 2001 European study of 21 nations’ data, “no significant correlations [of gunstock levels] with total suicide or homicide rates were found.”…

A 2007 study compared gun ownership and murder in every European nation on which the data could be found. Again, nations with more guns did not exhibit higher murder rates. Indeed, the tendency is generally the opposite: murder rates for the seven nations having 16,000+ guns average out to 1.2 per 100,000 population while the murder rates for the nine nations having just 5,000 or fewer guns is well over three times higher, at 4.4 per 100,000. These national comparisons suggest that the determinants of murder are factors such as basic socio-economic and cultural factors, and not the mere availability of guns. Leading gun control advocates have admitted that “Israel and Switzerland [have] rates of homicide [that] are low despite rates of home firearm ownership that are at least as high as those noted in the U.S.” To the same effect, within Canada, “England, America and Switzerland, [the areas] with the highest rates of gun ownership are in fact those with the lowest rates of violence.”

To the extend the Supreme Court attempts to digest this information, I would expect this comparative analysis will be useful in assessing whether the District of Columbia had a proper basis for restricting gun possession. These sort of briefs offer pragmatic arguments for justifying government restrictions on individual liberties. As I have argued here, “the Court frequently has relied on foreign authority to curtail, not expand individual liberties. The United States Reports are replete with instances in which the Court has relied on foreign experiences to uphold the constitutionality of government action that limits individual rights.”

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