We Americans should all be sitting shiva.
But when, next week, we rise from our knees and begin working – together, I hope – to reduce the terrible problem of violence in our country, we must realize that our disorder goes much deeper than simply owning too many guns, and that any effective solution will have to go much deeper too.
When they are distressed, some people clean house or do push-ups I collect data. All week I have been amassing numbers and arranging them in rows and columns, trying to shed light on the question: Why are some nations violent while others are not?
To answer that question would take a lifetime of research and more wisdom than Solomon’s. The best I could do was to look at the homicide rates of the 34 OECD nations, which are the countries that most resemble the United States in culture and economics, and to compare them with rates in other categories. The best I can offer are correlations, not causes.* Here is what I have learned in the last four days.
1. Despite what liberals like myself would like to believe, the homicide rate does not correlate, either negatively or positively, with the gun-ownership rate per se.** South Korea, for example, has a very low gun-ownership rate but a high homicide rate. Austria, Norway, and Switzerland, on the other hand, have relatively high gun-ownership rates but low homicide rates. Japan has low rates all around – very few guns, very few homicides – while the United States has high rates of both gun ownership and homicide.
2. Despite what some preachers (and atheists) have claimed, the homicide rate does not correlate, either negatively or positively, with religiosity. The United States is highly religious and highly homicidal. Japan is barely religious and has almost no homicides. Most nations, though, are an unpredictable mixture of spirituality and savagery.
3. There appears to be some correlation between high homicide rates and a high degree of economic inequality. This seems particularly evident in Mexico, Estonia, the United States, and Chile, who all have lots of homicides and a great gap between rich and poor.
4. The homicide rate correlates most strikingly with three other rates:
• The higher a nation’s homicide rate, the more likely it is to have a high rate of military expenditures.In other words, if you want to identify homicidal OECD nations, look for the ones with the strongest militaries and the weakest social services.
• The higher a nation’s homicide rate, the less likely it is to have an effective healthcare system.
• The higher a nation’s homicide rate, the less likely its students are to earn high scores in mathematics.
In case you’re wondering, of the 34 OECD nations, the United States has the third-highest homicide rate. We also have the highest number of guns per 100 residents and the fourth-highest rate of military expenditures (for what is by far the most expensive military in the world). At the same time we have the third highest income-inequality rate. In healthcare outcomes we are in 24th place, and in mathematical achievement we are tied with Portugal and Ireland for 25th place.
Sixty years ago President Eisenhower warned us about the path we were taking:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. ... Is there no other way the world may live?Today President Obama announced that Vice-President Biden will "lead an exploration of options" regarding "the renewal of an assault weapons ban, limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines and an end to loopholes allowing gun purchases with no background checks."
Such options, if legislated and enforced, might well decrease our appalling homicide rate. They will not, however, reduce our huge military outlay. They will not make our healthcare and educational systems competitive with those of other nations. And until we prioritize people over power, we are likely to continue down our violent path.
* This research is about correlation, not causation. Two facts - we'll call them A and B - coexist. A may cause B. On the other hand, B may cause A. Some other fact may cause both A and B. Or A and B may have nothing to do with one another. For example, eating chocolate may cause migraine headaches. On the other hand, an incipient migraine headache may cause a person to crave chocolate. Or possibly some alteration in brain chemistry may cause a person both to crave chocolate and to get a migraine. Or maybe chocolate and migraines are totally unrelated. It takes wisdom, common sense, and often hindsight to sort out how, and if, coexisting facts are causally related.
** I have not studied OECD gun laws, so I do not know what kinds of guns are involved in these countries, who can legally purchase them, or what background checks or training are required before purchase. Nor do I know how laws may have changed over the last couple of decades, or how homicide and gun-ownership rates may have changed in response to changed legislation. Any of those factors could affect their homicide rates.