After each massacre conducted with a gun in the US, there is the typical discussion what to do to prevent more of these incidents. Currently, to not much of an avail.

From a European perspective (that surely is biased in some way), things look obvious: Many guns, lacking control -> much gun violence. But "obvious" is not always "correct".

In the aftermath of a shooting, the same routine in statistical interpretation can be seen. US States with strict and lax gun control are compared, with each side picking the results that suit them best. From my point of view, those statistics do not prove much. If you can circumvent any gun control by driving a few hundred miles to the next state with less strict controls, effects of gun control are expected to be very limited anyway, so the significance of the statistic is low.

But there is an elephant in the room: The much lower rates of shootings and massacres in comparable Western European countries.

The homicide rate of the United States is 4.88 of 100.000 inhabitants. Compare this to the UK (0.92), Germany (0.85), Spain (0.66), or Japan (0.31).

All of these countries have very strict gun laws. This surely is no proof, but the question remains: Why is the US homicide rate so extremely high compared with most other Western countries?

If it is not lacking gun control, there must be another reason. Those who propose that gun control does not change things, should be able to offer an alternative explanation. So the question is:

What alternative explanations are currently offered by anti-gun control activists for the exceptionally high homicide and shooting rate in the United States?

I often read about how gun control would not help, but that does not explain the current situation, and if no sufficient explanation is offered, on the long run people will run with the obvious solution: ban guns.

Edit: To clarify the purpose of the question: I want to know the common counter-arguments aside from merely trying to disprove that gun control would lower homicide rates. Alternative explanations for that extraordinary high shooting rates (compared to other Western countries) that are given by people opposing stricter gun control. I do not want to evaluate the validity of these arguments. This is not about who is right, but which arguments are brought up besides gun control.

  • 6
    This was discussed (here or on Skeptics) before. (1) You're not comparing apples to apples. If you want to compare US to Sweden, compare parts of US that average same socioeconomic attributes as Sweden (which immediately drops he homicide rates). (2) To be more specific, the share of lower-status low-income males should be compared, as it predicts at least half the variation
    – user4012
    Commented Feb 22, 2018 at 5:09
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    Concerning the close vote: I don't see why this question is primarily opinion based. I asked for alternate explanations offered by anti-gun control activists. I did not ask for judgement about if these explanations are actually correct (which is, in fact, to a large point subjective).
    – Thern
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 12:32
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    Clarify: are you asking about the "gunfire victims" or the "homicide and shooting rate"? Most gun deaths in the USA are suicides. If it's only gun homicides you're interested in, please say so. Still, most gun rights advocates would point to the loaded nature of the question: why talk about gun homicides while ignoring all other homicides? Obviously there are more gun homicides where guns are legal, but so what? The overall homicide rate is what matters. If that's what you're asking, make it clear in the question.
    – user15103
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 19:25
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    @Joe You are right, I am more interested in the homicide / shooting cases than in gun-related accidents or suicides because that mostly hits gun users and can be prevented by not buying a gun, so no government is needed here. Still, I am a bit reluctant to change the title of a running question, as answers have already been given.
    – Thern
    Commented Feb 24, 2018 at 9:31

4 Answers 4


There are any number of potential explanations:

  1. Lead. There is a hypothesis that the drop in violence in the US was caused by the elimination of lead from gasoline. However, as the problems in Flint, Michigan demonstrate, there are still water systems and painted rooms contaminated with lead. Flint was an extreme case, but it is likely that other water systems also have lead pipes. And of course anywhere can have lead-based paint.

  2. Drugs. The United States has a high rate of illegal drug usage. Drug gangs engage in violence and murder to protect their territory. The porous southern border matters here because it allows both drugs and gang members to cross.

  3. Demographics. Some racial groups (e.g. Africans) are associated with higher levels of violent crime in the US. They also are more common in the US than Europe. There are roughly four times as many people descended from Africa in the US as Europe, even though there are (about a third) fewer people in the US overall. While statistically true, some suggest that the real problem is that Americans of African descent are more likely to be in poverty, inequality, or homes with lead contamination. I.e. that this is a correlation rather than a causative explanation.

  4. Poverty. Eurostats says that in 2014, poverty in the US was about 24% and in Europe about 17%. Some believe that poverty causes violence. In general, poorer countries are more violent than richer countries.

  5. Inequality. Some have speculated that higher inequality in the US (as measured by statistics like the Gini coefficient) may lead to more violence.

  6. History. The US has always had a higher homicide rate than Western European countries. The real reason why might be one of the other reasons, but this well predates modern gun control measures.

  7. Exclusionary rule. Specific to comparisons with Japan. In Japan, if a search is successful then it is presumed that there is probable cause to make the search. As a result, police can be more aggressive in searches and still be more successful in prosecutions. By contrast, there are a number of exploits in the US that allow criminals to use the exclusionary rule to avoid searches or to get out of convictions after the fact.

    Studies have shown that sureness of punishment is a more effective deterrent than increased punishment. Japan's rules make it much easier to catch someone carrying a gun illegally, which in turn makes people less likely to break the law that way. In the US, it is much easier for someone who should not have a gun to carry one.

  • 1
    About point 6 "(...) this well predates modern gun control measures." : I'm not sure what you mean here. AFAIU, the second amendment is two centuries old, and never in that period was carrying guns allowed in (most of ?) Europe. In France for instance, Napoleon issued strong regulation about carrying guns in 1810 (you would need a nominal autorisation), and it has been totally banned since 1939 for every citizen but for security forces.
    – Evargalo
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 15:08
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    Might help to include "limited access to mental healthcare." I've heard that one come up quite a few times.
    – Erik
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 15:09
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    I'm itching to downvote this. It is better than the other answers so far, but by not at least raising that these factors probably have marginal explanation power compared to the ubiquitous nature of guns in the US, a random reader could very well be left off thinking that "hey, being able to buy a gun in 5 minutes isn't part of the actual problem." Given how likely this thread is going to end up in many Google searches; methinks the best answer should address this. Commented Feb 24, 2018 at 6:51
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    "sureness of punishment is a more effective deterrent than increased punishment" - thanks, this seems to be a good explanation for a question I had for a long time: why was crime prevalent in the middle ages when (in certain places or under certain conditions) even petty theft could get you capital punishment? If the criminals believe there is very little chance of getting caught, then it doesn't matter much how harsh the punishment will be?
    – vsz
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 6:24
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    @DenisdeBernardy The question actually is "alternative reasons". That is, aside from the main reason, which is gun availability, what are the [other] causes, so this answer is on point there. Although it's also probably worth pointing out that restrictive gun laws don't always correlate well with gun availability. Some countries have restrictive laws but also have a lot of gun violence because they can't apparently enforce the laws.
    – JamieB
    Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 14:08

First, let's consider all nations, not just a select few. We can draw a more accurate picture of what might cause murder rates.

And we find that according to this wikipedia article, the highest rates of murder per 100,000 are:

El Salvador (108.64)

Honduras (63.75)

Venezuela (57.15)

US Virgin Islands (52.64)

Jamaica (43.21)

Lesotho (38.0)

Belize (34.4)

South Africa (34.27)

and so on... in general, central and south America tend to be the murder champions, with some African nations high up, and some of the politically unstable Pacific rim nations also having high murder rates.

Out of curiosity, I looked up El Salvador's gun ownership laws. They are categorized as restrictive, with a license necessary to own a gun, and the government under no obligation to give that license... gun ownership in El Salvador is not a right.

The lowest on the list, that represent a large number of people, tend to be the Asian societies of Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Macao. All prosperous and politically stable areas, with self disciplined societies.

It is interesting to note that Japan, while having a low murder rate, also has a high suicide rate at 15.4/100,000 as compared to other industrial nations... though S Korea has an even higher suicide rate (24.1) than Japan.

Consider also nations under the rule of the UK and France and subject to their firearms regulations:

Cayman Islands/UK (14.74)

French Guiana (13.17)

British Virgin Islands (8.37)

Guadeloupe/France (7.9)

Bermuda/UK (6.45)

This is leaving out those with very low populations like Anguilla/UK or French Polynesia, where a few murders result in a statistically unreliable murder rate.

That doesn't match France (1.58) or the UK (0.92), though it is lower than some of the neighbors. Then again, the host governments tend to prop those nations up with aid, so economic conditions aren't as dire as their neighbors.

Now, let's look at the US murder rate, broken down by state.

Topping the list is the District of Columbia, at 24.2... right up there with some of the central American nations. DC is also an area of extreme poverty for residents. Other states with high murder rates also tend to have a relatively poor population, such as Louisiana, and Mississippi. On the other hand, the states with the lowest murder rates on a par with the UK and Germany: New Hampshire (1.1) and Hawaii (1.3) tend to be fairly prosperous.

Given the wide diversity of murder rates, when the gun laws are essentially the same (except for DC, which like other major metropolitan areas has restrictive gun laws), legal gun ownership can't be the primary reason. If it were, the murder rates in the various states would be relatively consistent.

Let's get a bit more granular, and look at murder rates in the US by major cities

Topping this list is St Louis, at 59.8, on a par with Venezuela. New Orleans isn't far behind at 41.7, and Chicago, with very strict gun control laws, is 23.8. All of those cities have large impoverished areas.

Curiously enough, New York City has a very low rate, at 3.4, although nearby Newark NJ tops even Chicago at 33.3. Both Chicago and NYC have very restrictive gun laws. While it's not impossible to legally own a firearm in either city, it is effectively impractical, with miles of red tape and scads of restrictions. For all practical purposes, you can't walk around in either city with a firearm. Not legally, anyway.

Out of curiosity, I tried to look up murder rates in France by city, to see if there was a corresponding peak in impoverished or politically unstable areas, but those figures don't seem to be available.

Considering all nations, and considering the wide diversity of murder rates of states and cities within the US, murder rate appears to have more a relation to political stability and economic conditions than legality of firearms ownership. Very poor areas tend to have very high murder rates, just as very politically unstable nations tend to have very high murder rates.

When an area is both poor and politically unstable, such as El Salvador, or Venezuela, or Washington DC, the rate goes through the roof, regardless of the legality of gun ownership.

  • I doubt that places like the Cayman Islands, Bermuda etc are subject to UK firearms laws.
    – WS2
    Commented Feb 24, 2018 at 12:28
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    I purposely restrained the question to Western countries because of better comparability. Note that El Salvador also ranks very high on corruption scales, and the government is inefficient, so that even if gun control is in place, it is probably quite ineffective. In comparison, in Western countries, if gun control is at place, it is typically enforced in an effective way. Thus, I tend to think of central/south american countries as countries with an effectively low gun control, even if the law says otherwise.
    – Thern
    Commented Feb 25, 2018 at 10:23
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    @Nebr: Or are you cherry picking to enhance an opinion? In the context of the entire world, the US murder rate isn't much higher than Europe. Loose gun control is probably a contributing factor, but that doesn't explain why high murder rates in the US are confined to a few areas. If one wishes to solve a problem, then all factors should be considered, not just those that appeal to a preconceived opinion. During the Troubles, N Ireland had a very high murder rate, despite the most draconian gun laws on earth. The murder rate didn't drop with gun control, it dropped with a political solution.
    – tj1000
    Commented Feb 25, 2018 at 20:22
  • @tj1000 It depends. Invoking the entire world will open oneself up to the argument that we are talking about apples and pears. In fact, the first comment under my question outlined that even comparing the US with Europe would be comparing apples with pears. But it isn't about validity. It is about which arguments can be brought forth apart from (or instead of) loose gun control. As a side note, it seems plausible that there is not only one single factor contributing, as can be seen in countries with a civil war, but few gun control activists would say that gun control will remove all problems.
    – Thern
    Commented Feb 26, 2018 at 10:19
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    One thing to consider: High gun-crime may not be despite restrictive laws, but restrictive laws because of high gun-crime. In other words, if predictors like poverty, crime-rates and number of guns come first, more restrictive laws (which afaik are rather recent mostly) do not change much. There are social and cultural facts established (like being shot being a common danger and being able to shoot back helping at least a bit) that do simply prevail and are non-existant in western Europe. This holds for El Salvador just as well as Chicago. Commented Feb 26, 2018 at 14:43

For school shootings, there's the iatrogenic drug withdrawal violence theory, posited primarily by Scientologists, based partly on the fact that school shootings and widespread school sanction of prescription behavior/mood modification drugs seem to have begun around the same time.

Notorious endorsers of a theory often make for a conveniently bad sign, but inductive shortcuts aside, this can be contrasted with the errant excesses of big pharma -- most relevant to possibly violent side-effects would be the widespread practice of routinely withholding drug trial data, (itself another kind of violence). Since it's just pots and kettles either way, prejudice against either side is not very much help here.

Dr. David Healy, a more reputable but outspoken critic of big pharma, argues for the existence of a curious public double-standard about the perceived adverse side-effects of the same drug when it's prescribed versus when it's contraband:

One of the best examples of how we can be tricked can be seen in the Hidden Gorilla video where selective attention can lead to us missing a Gorilla walking right across screen in front of us. But the very best trick must be the one that leaves us certain that serotonin reuptake inhibitors or amphetamines available on the street cause violence while in complete denial that almost identical prescription-only drugs could do so.
-- The Hidden Gorilla


So I think it's fair I let you know my personal beliefs on Gun issues with the United States:

  • At Present, I am not a gun owner. I have no need to own a gun. I have no interest in owning guns. I do not plan to buy a gun in my immediate future.
  • I personally think that I should never be trusted with a fire arm, but I am not opposed to ownership if my circumstances change.
  • I am in no position to tell my fellow citizens how they should or should not feel about guns. I ask my fellow citizens not to impose their feelings in the matter on me.
  • Despite not owning fire arms at all, I do believe I should know what my rights are with respect to the Constitution and current laws.
  • I am open to gun control measures if they are proven to work with the Constitution and control for an obvious gap in the law OR prevent an obvious scenario from that said gap.
  • I believe in the right to self-defense with fire arms as a valid excuse for ownership. I believe the founders intended the citizens to be armed and ready to fight their new government if need be AS THEY HAD JUST FINISHED DOING. I do not believe the current United States Government is so far gone that this should occur in near future.

So, there are a few things that will tip those numbers, and there are a lot of studies that are thrown out that can confuse the issue. Some comparison statistics are not provided, some represent totally other things, and so on and so forth.

To Answer your question, I want to first point out some numbers you are using are wrong:

The homicide rate of the United States is 4.88 of 100.000 inhabitants. Compare this to the UK (0.92), Germany (0.85), Spain (0.66), or Japan (0.31).

These numbers are the total murders per capita for their countries. Criminal Homicide by Fire Arms are 3.60 (US), 0.06 (UK), 0.07 (Germany), 0.15 (Spain), and 0.0 (Japan). Taken at this look, the premise that more guns = more criminal Homicide does look more impressive, as the U.S. is still mostly gun crime are the predominant issue.

However, this does not prove the issue. We have to prove that these numbers are directly related to the number of guns in each country. These numbers are given as "per 100 residents" but can easily be converted to per capita (100,000) by multiplying the number by 1,000:

The United States has 101.5 guns per capita (aka More guns per capita than PEOPLE per Capita!). The comparison numbers are 6.6 (U.K.), 30.3 (Germany), 10.4 (Spain), 0.6 (Japan). These numbers include only both Legal Fire Arms and Illegal Fire Arms in civilian circulation. And then we take one more step.

To Prove more guns equals more Criminal Homicide, we will have to multiply the total gun numbers by 1000 (Making it Per Capita) and then divide the death by criminal homicide by the total gun numbers. Europe and Japan come out as follows:

UK: 9.09 x e-6

Germany: 2.31 x e-6

Spain: 1.44 X e-5

Japan: 0

U.S: 3.54 e-5

(Source: List of Countries by Fire Arms Related Deaths)

So, yes, the United States has more fire arm homicides than the four countries you showed to us... but at a rate of homicide per gun, we're seeing some funny numbers. The U.K. and Germany are lower by a factor of 10... BUT... look who has the higher number of murders per gun: the U.K.... which has less gun related homicide than Germany (0.07 and 0.06) despite Germany having nearly five times the number of fire arms than the U.k. Similarly Spain has less than half of the murders per gun as the United States despite the United States literally having more fire arms than it does people (Ten times that of of Spain). Heck, at these numbers, if you want to round the U.K. to 1.00 X e-5 no one would really blink in any other stat.. The United States has a homicide per gun rate of 3 times that of the UK, despite having 15 times more guns.

I'm going to leave this part blank because I have to swap computers, but I'll put some of the reasons why the numbers come out so weird. The TL;DR: of that section will basically be there are cultural elements at play.

EDIT: Additional Discussion:

Okay, so long weekend aside, but there are other issues that may likely be drawn. If we look at the the total death rate by guns (including criminal homicide, suicide, accidental death, and unknown reasons) we find the rate of individual incident per capita vs. guns per capita the United States is only just slightly worse than Japan (1.04 x e-4 vs. 1.00 x e-4). This is because while Japan does have less guns than the United States available for civilian use, those that they do have are used for gun inflicted suicide at a rate that puts their total incident per gun level close to that of the United States. In fact, in the United States, Canada, and Europe, the general rule of thumb is that the rate of gun related suicide is much larger than gun related homicide, nearly universally. In fact, while there are a number of countries with higher total gun related incidents than the United States (10.6 per 100,000), the United States has the highest incident rate of nations where Suicides are a larger contributor than Homicides to total incidents. Brazil for example, has a total incident rate of about 21.2 per 100,000 of which the number of Gun Related Homicides dwarves any other contribution to incidents (19.99 per 100,000).

In these situations, there are contributing factors from a cultural stand point that contribute. Brazil is a majority Catholic and Christian country, and the Religion has strong taboos against Suicides (The Bible says a thing or two about killing, but apparently that's an issue of a different horse.). Mean while, Japan has a strong cultural taboo against causing other people trouble, which factors into their very very low murder rate in general (the family of criminals also pay for their jail time... if the family cannot pay, the criminal will do manual labor during his stay). They also do not have a cultural taboo on suicide (until recently).

Another undisclosed factor in the statistics, is that in the United States, about 88-93% of the total guns quoted are legally owned by the owner (meaning they bought and paid for the weapons through legal means). This statistic varies because the illegal owners are not known and tracked beyond guess work made by law enforcement. This leaves about 12,180 illegal fire arms per 100,000, and it's estimated that 80% of all gun related crimes are committed by these weapons (2.88 homicides out of 3.60 per 100,000). I won't compare these crime figures to the other nations because I do not have the data on legal vs. illegal fire arms in the other countries. It's important to note that you can drop the United States total homicide rate significantly if you dropped the four cities with the highest per capita homicide rates (St. Louis, Baltimore, Detroit, and New Orleans). The area of the United States between the coastal areas is not typically densely populate and these tend to be the areas of highest gun ownership.

Now the next question is that of these contries, I belive the United States is the only one that allows fire arms for self-defense purposes, and these numbers are hard to track. The incidents of self-defense use of guns is estimated to be between 65,000 - 2.5 million incidents per year (The vast majority will never involve pulling the trigger on the fire arm used in such a manor). The reason for this long gap is that the two studies used different criteria, with the lower levels being explicit incidents with guns pulled by the victim, while the larger number includes examples of the criminal being deterred from crime because of the potential of an armed victim. This arming effect is one of the reasons that the United States, only 10-12% of all burglaries are "hot" or committed while the victim is home (as opposed to the U.K. where Hot Burglaries make up 80% of the Burglarly rate). And even then, you do not need to own a gun to be defended by private ownership in the United States. All you would need is a bumper sticker slapped to your car in your drive way to make a criminal think twice about breaking and entering.

Keep in mind that this attitude goes way back to the founding of the country. The first battle of the Revolutionary War was because the British wanted to disarm their citizens living on what at the time was the edge of known civilization (they had already done this in Boston which angered the Bostonians, but not as much as the people who actually did use their guns for food and defense). The Second Amendment exists not because the government of the United States would do that, so much as it was that the previous government HAD DONE IT. In Europe, the only country close to the United States in this fear is Switzerland, though they never viewed their own government in this light (what with Direct Democracy and all that) but when every other country that shares a border with Germany is invaded, you do start to worry about fighting a tyrannical government.

I know I've thrown out a lot of numbers and what have you, but it's to show that numbers are not the only determinate factor at play. There are a lot of cultural factors at play as well, and the United States tends to have a population with a lot of voices from a lot of different parts of the world. It's not as simple as this one thing.

  • I think I'm missing the point. By your (if it has a different source you ought to cite it) proposed statistics the conclusion for the US vs rest of the world is the same for per gun as per capita, with US guns being significantly more likely to facilitate a murder as other developed countries' guns, just like our people are significantly more likely to be murdered.
    – user9389
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 22:33
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    As a side note, coming from Germany, I am a bit surprised about the high numbers of guns. You will never see anyone (except from police officers) carrying a gun in public because of the very strict gun laws. If you actually own a gun, you have to keep it in a specially designed safe all the time, only allowed to take it out when you want to use it for a very specific case (hunting, shooting training for sports etc.), and are not allowed to carry it armed on the body (ammunition must be stored elsewhere). So the high numbers may be a bit misleading.
    – Thern
    Commented Feb 24, 2018 at 9:41

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