Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Violence : It isn't just about the guns

This is not a blog post about gun control. Everything that can possibly be said about that subject, pro or con, has already been said millions of times since Friday. We are talking too much, too soon. In the words of my rabbi, “Judaism teaches that when there is nothing to say we should say nothing….Sometimes only silence gives voice to what has happened."

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.
• 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 other words, if you want to identify homicidal OECD nations, look for the ones with the strongest militaries and the weakest social services. 

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.


Unknown said...

This is probably the most objective piece I have seen since the Sandy Hook tragedy; your analysis confirms my long-held suspicion that Switzerland is the ideal country. Great social services, little violence, and plenty of guns.

Unknown said...

One other thing: the US military is the second-largest with just under 1.5 million active-duty personnel. China comes in first place with 2.28 million. India, North Korea and the Russian Federation all have more than 1 million active-duty troops on the books as well.

LaVonne Neff said...

Yes, but I was looking at military expenditures. In that category, the U.S. tops them all, outspending the next 13 nations combined.

LaVonne Neff said...

But thanks for making me clarify. I've edited the post to change "largest" to "most expensive" and I've added a hyperlink for the data.

DWStiles said...

Are you calculating raw military budget or as a proportion of GNP or some other competitive data. that is one area where the politico=statisticians play all sorts of agenda-ed tricks. another significant factor to consider when comparing countries is the relative degree of homogeneity in their population.

I can strongly recommend Randolph Roth's 2009 "Homicide in America" an almost overwhelming door-stopper of an academic tome that has exhaustively analysed american homicide as definitively as any one has accomplished to date. He has studied it historically since the first settlers and also does a lot of detailed comparison with other nations.

LaVonne Neff said...

The figures I used in the blog are military expenditures as a % of GDP. Using that calculus, we are in 4th place behind Israel, Turkey, and Greece. If you just look at the amount spent, we are in 1st place with no competition. Unfortunately my otherwise excellent library doesn't have the R. Roth book. Bring it next time you visit!

Anonymous said...

A couple of other variables that some of these countries have in common are abortion and capital punishment. I'd like to see how these correlate to levels of violence, as well.

LaVonne Neff said...

The abortion rate in Western and Northern Europe is lower than that in the U.S. The abortion rate in Southern Europe is higher than ours, and that of Eastern Europe is 50% higher. There seems to be no obvious correlation with homicide rates.

Capital punishment is another story. In the U.S., 47 people have been executed this year. Of the other 33 OECD nations, only 3 allow capital punishment. Japan executed 7 people this year. South Korea has executed none since 1998. Israel has executed none since 1962. Still, it's hard to make any kind of correlation with homicide rates, since almost none of the developed nations use capital punishment at all anymore.

Annie Turner said...

LaVonne, this is a marvelous post. I admire its clarity and the conclusions you have drawn. Thank you so much for going to all the hard work of amassing data and then putting it into a readable form! Fascinating and also just a tad discouraging. Annie Turner

Dan Martin said...

This is a compelling piece and I'm going to highlight it on my facebook page...I really think you've got some thought-provoking ideas here.

Of course I would wonder whether the fact that we have the biggest military and such high homicide rates may not actually both be symptoms of the same cause, which is a cultural narrative in which the infliction of pain and death are the natural response to all sorts of real or imagined offenses. Not that I discount your analysis by any means; I think there's a better-than-even chance that those who benefit most from our militarism also work to perpetuate the violence-as-response narrative which cyclically then encourages more support of the military.

The issue of economic disparity does, I believe, add insight to a lot of the violence we experience in America, but paradoxically *not* Sandy Hook, Columbine, and several similar mass-killing episodes which were actually perpetrated by upper-middle-class white kids on their own "kind." But here too, the sense (perpetuated in movies, video games, and other cultural memes) that violence is cathartic may well have contributed strongly, and that plays back into the narrative that supports our military-industrial idolatry.

None of this to dispute your thoughts...only to perhaps push them a little further. Thanks!

LaVonne Neff said...

I totally agree, Dan. As I said in the blog post, correlation is not causation. I am sure that America's high rates of homicides, military expenditures, social inequality, and gun ownership, plus our lower rates of healthcare and educational effectiveness, all stem from some other cause(s) - and very possibly from the same, or related, causes. By examining patterns of correlation, we may be able to figure out what these causes are and start laying the ax to the root of the tree (happy Advent to you!).