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Is the United States unusually violent? The answer may surprise you


Beneath our debate about gun violence, there’s an undercurrent assumption many people — particularly gun-rights advocates — seem to cling to: that the United States has more homicides than other industrialized countries not because we have more firearms but because something about our nation makes it culturally more prone to violence.

Is it true?

In many circles, the notion that overall violent crime in general is higher in the U.S. than, say, Europe, is taken as an article of faith. Indeed, I hear many colleagues claim that someone is more likely to be assaulted or raped in the U.S. as compared to most industrialized countries.

It’s not so simple. A look at crime data from the United Nations suggests some caution in how we perceive U.S. crime relative to other industrialized countries.

If we start by looking at the comparative homicide data, we find the expected pattern. Namely, that the U.S. is far out and above other industrialized countries regarding homicide.

In fairness, countries such as Russia, the Ukraine, Mongolia and the Philippines have fairly high homicide rates compared to the U.S. Much of Latin America as well as the Caribbean and South Africa have homicide rates that are through the roof.

Nonetheless, we generally aspire to industrialized nations, where we can see our homicide rate is comparatively embarrassing.

Interestingly, however, if we look at serious assault rates, the picture is far different. Specifically, the U.S. is roughly middle of the pack compared to other industrialized nations. One is more likely to be assaulted in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Belgium, France or Australia, compared to in the U.S.

Other countries ranging from Japan to the Netherlands have lower assault rates. But the U.S. is nothing special when it comes to assault.

What about rape? Currently, the UN is not making comparative sexual assault data public. I had viewed the data about a year ago and, at that time, the U.S. was also about middle-of-the-pack for industrialized countries. (Sexual assault data is, frankly, very difficult to compare since different countries use different definitions.)

If the U.S. were inherently more violence than economically similar countries, we’d expect to see a much higher assault rate compared to other nations. We’re not seeing that. Therefore, purely cultural explanations for violence appear to be unlikely to explain U.S. violence.

Why then are U.S. homicides so high? This requires more data. However, one likely explanation is simply that the easy availability of firearms makes it more efficient to convert what might have been an assault in the UK or Belgium into an impulsive homicide in the United States. We’re not more violent, but it’s easier to see violence here result in a life being ended.

This could be examined more closely by looking at cross-national predictors of homicides and other violence, a project currently underway at our university.

Violence is multi-determined, and guns certainly don’t cause crime. Indeed, the belief that the presence of firearms might trigger aggression is poorly supported by data.

But the presence of guns may have a role in making crime and violence that does occur more deadly than it would otherwise be. Progress will only come with meaningful dialogue between supporters of gun rights and those for gun control. Unfortunately, in an increasingly polarized political environment, the potential to move beyond virtue signaling on both sides appears remote.

Ferguson is a psychology professor at Stetson University. HIs forthcoming book is “How Madness Shaped History.”