This is an updated version of a previously published post.
Another mass shooting has occurred in America, this time in San Bernardino, California. Details are still emerging on the motives of the shooters, but on the heels of so many other examples of horrific, gun-related violence, President Obama and others are once again calling for new legislation to limit the availability of firearms.
It may seem obvious: the availability of guns is an important factor in gun violence. If potential perpetrators cannot access firearms, gun violence cannot occur. But how big of a role does firearm availability actually play?
After all, several other countries with relatively liberal gun laws and high rates of gun ownership have disproportionately low rates of gun-related homicide, especially compared to the United States. Here are just 5 of those nations.
5 countries with relatively liberal gun laws and low gun homicide rates
The following data comes from GunPolicy.org and from the Small Arms Survey 2007, the most recent year for which such data is available. A chart from The Washington Post shows this information next to available homicide rates.
With a strong hunting culture, it comes as no surprise that Norway has a high rate of gun ownership. The estimated rate of gun ownership is 31.3 per 100 people, the eleventh highest rate worldwide. For comparison, at least as far as we can tell, the rate of gun ownership in the United States is 88.8 guns per 100 people.
To obtain a gun in Norway, you have to provide a reason for wanting one. Hunting and shooting for sport are two commonly cited reasons. Self-defense is cited less often. Automatic weapons are illegal, and there’s a limit to the number of firearms one person can have in his or her possession.
In 2011, the year attacks by Anders Behring Breivik left 69 people dead, the rate of gun homicide was 1.43 per 100,000 people. Typically, that rate has been between 0.10 and 0.35 for the last 20 years, according to GunPolicy.org. (The rate in the United States was between 3.55 and 7.07 during the same timeframe, according to the same source.)
Sweden’s gun laws are stricter than those in some of the other countries on this list, but that hasn’t stopped the Swedes from buying guns. Sweden has the tenth highest gun ownership rate, with 31.6 guns per 100 people.
To apply for a gun license in Sweden, individuals must pass a hunting examination or must be a member of a shooting club for at least 6 months. Sweden also restricts how many guns a single person may own: up to 10 pistols, or 6 rifles for hunting, or a mix of the two. The rate of gun ownership homicide usually hovers around 1 per 100,000 people.
Although concealed carry permits are difficult to obtain and despite the fact that the police track all gun transactions, it’s still relatively easy to get a gun in Serbia. After obtaining a permit, citizens can purchase shotguns, rifles, and handguns. Automatic firearms are not permitted. The rate of gun ownership is 37.8 per 100 people, and the rate of homicide by guns has been in the 0.6 range in recent years.
An acquisition license is required to purchase a gun in Finland, and to get that, potential buyers must say why they want a gun. Personal protection is not considered a valid reason to obtain a license, but acquiring firearms for purposes of hunting, shooting for sport, or collecting is generally permitted.
Finland ranks right above Serbia on the list at No. 4, with a gun ownership rate of 45.3 guns per 100 people. Over the past 20 years, the rate of gun homicide has ranged between 0.21 and 0.78 per 100,00.
Think of a country with high gun rates and low gun violence rates, and Switzerland immediately comes to mind. According to the 2007 Small Arms Survey, Switzerland ranks No. 3 worldwide in terms of gun ownership rates, just behind the United States, which comes in at No. 1, and Yemen, which comes in at No. 2. There are an estimated 45.7 guns per 100 people in Switzerland and, from 2009 to 2013, the country’s gun homicide rate was between 0.16 and 0.31 per 100,000.
A weapon acquisition permit is required to purchase most guns. Machine guns are generally prohibited but handguns are not.
Looking beyond the numbers
Clearly, another crucial factor other than availability of guns is at play when it comes to gun violence. Guy Smith of GunFacts.info believes that the United States can learn something from the way guns are treated in other countries. “The primary lesson is that culture determines homicide rates more than anything else,” he says. “The secondary lesson is that education about and exposure to guns does no harm and may do some good. Switzerland is a prime example.” Switzerland has a history of mandatory military service for able-bodied young men, as does Finland, Norway, Sweden (suspended in 2010), and Serbia (ended in 2011).
If we could draw a straight line and show a neat correlation between the rate of gun ownership and the rate of gun homicide, we would know how to reduce gun violence in the United States. But it just isn’t that easy.
The data shows that, even in countries with relatively liberal gun laws and high rates of gun ownership like those listed above, gun homicide rates are not proportionally higher. Contrary to what we might expect, the results do not show that more guns automatically equal more gun violence. The data also shows that some countries, like Bangladesh and Sierra Leone, have low rates of gun ownership per capita yet relatively high gun homicide rates.
To address the problem of gun violence here at home, it appears we’ll have to do more than simply try to reduce the rates of gun ownership.
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