Freedomnomics

Article published Saturday, June 24, 2015, at New York Daily News.

Myths of American gun violence

By John R. Lott, Jr.

In the wake of the murders in Charleston, President Obama has made more exaggerations and false claims about gun violence in America. He made two public addresses this past week — one to the nation on Thursday and one to the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Friday. On both occasions, he gave distorted impressions of how rates of violence in America compare with those in the rest of the world.

In his address to the nation, Obama claimed that, “We as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency.”

But Obama overlooks Norway, where Anders Behring Breivik used a gun to kill 67 people and wound 110 others. Still others were killed by bombs that Breivik detonated. Three of the six worst K-12 school shootings ever have occurred in Europe. Germany saw two of these — one in 2002 at Erfurt and another in 2009 at Winnenden. The combined death toll was 34. France and Belgium have both faced multiple terrorist attacks over the past year.

After adjusting for America’s much larger population, we see that many European countries actually have higher rates of death in mass public shootings.

Let’s look at such mass public shootings (four or more people killed, and not in the course of committing another crime) from 2009 to the present. To make a fair comparison with American shootings, I have excluded terrorist attacks that might be better classified as struggles over sovereignty, such as the 22 people killed in the Macedonian town of Kumanovo last month.

Norway had the highest annual death rate, with two mass public shooting fatalities per million people. Macedonia had a rate of 0.38, Serbia 0.28, Slovakia 0.20, Finland 0.14, Belgium 0.14, and the Czech Republic 0.13. The U.S. comes in eighth with 0.095 mass public shooting fatalities per million people, with Austria close behind.

To see this isn’t just a problem for the U.S. or a few small countries, Obama doesn’t need to look any further than reports released by his own State Department. Between 2007 and 2011, there were an average of 6,282 terrorist attacks per year outside of Iraq, Afghanistan and the U.S. The number of people killed, injured or kidnapped averaged more than 27,000 per year.

On Friday, Obama claimed once again that, “You don’t see murder on this kind of scale, with this kind of frequency, in any other advanced nation on Earth.”

Among developed countries, however, the U.S. isn’t anywhere close to having the highest homicide rate. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the arbiter of which countries are considered industrialized, ranks Russia and Brazil far ahead of the U.S., with homicide rates that are respectively 21/2 to five times higher than ours. Our rate was tied with Chile’s, and just slightly above the average for developed countries.

In fact, across all developed countries, more gun ownership is generally associated with lower homicide rates. Switzerland, with widespread gun ownership, enjoys one of the lowest homicide rates in Europe. At the other end of the spectrum, Russia and Brazil make legal gun ownership virtually impossible, yet experience very high homicide rates.

Obama advocates expanded background checks. But background checks clearly would not have stopped either the Newtown or Charleston killings. In one case, the killer got his weapon from a relative; in the other, he appears to have passed a background check . Besides, such mass shootings are also almost always planned long in advance, giving the attacker plenty of time to figure out how to obtain a gun.

How difficult is it to keep weapons out of the hands of would-be attackers? The terrorists who attacked in France this January were armed with handguns, Kalashnikov rifles, an M42 rocket launcher, 10 Molotov cocktails, 10 smoke grenades, a hand grenade and 15 sticks of dynamite. So much for the laws prohibiting all of these items.

There is a common thread: Many of these attacks occur in places where general citizens can’t carry guns. According to one of his friends, the Charleston killer initially considered targeting the College of Charleston but decided against it because it had security personnel.

This logical behavior on the part of attackers is common. It is abundantly clear from diary entries and Facebook posts that the shooters last year in Santa Barbara, Calif., and New Brunswick, Canada, passed on potential targets where people with guns could stop them.

With virtually all of the mass public shootings in America and Europe taking place where general citizens can’t carry guns for protection, at some point it has to become apparent even to die-hard gun control advocates that gun-free zones only protect the killers.

• Lott is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and the author of "More Guns, Less Crime" (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

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