Saturday, January 15, 2011


As an American, living in Australia, I used to regularly get asked questions like: "How could you stand to live in a country where everyone is shooting each other with fully-automatic anti-tank guns all the time?" As an Australian, living in America, I nearly as regularly get asked questions like "How could you stand to live in a country where the government gets all the guns, and citizens are killed on sight for owning a sharpened paperclip?"

(It is just possible that I am exaggerating both perspectives slightly for dramatic purposes. May you never guess how little I am exaggerating in either case.)

Generally, I try to stomp on some of the more ridiculous hyperbole without pissing off the fanatical extremists of any given jihad, and avoid making eye-contact whenever possible. However, when pressed for an opinion by people who actually seem likely to entertain the brief sojourn of facts into such an emotion-riddled battlefield, I will admit to liking living in a society where gun ownership is limited. I'm not saying no one should be allowed to own guns, but lets face it; military technology has progressed to the point where the idea of a successful armed citizens revolt against the government is laughably implausible, and nobody needs an assault rifle for home defense against burglars or for hunting rabbits. To my mind there are guns with legitimate civilian uses, and growing up in a household where they are present, stored properly, and treated with respect can help kids learn to be a lot safer about them than kids who grow up with Hollywood as their sole source of information on the subject. There are also guns whose sole purpose is the efficient obliteration of large quantities of human beings in as short a time as possible, and I don't like those sorts of things running around near me, thankyouverymuch. And then there are fuzzy things in the middle, and I'd hate to be the one whose job it was to draw the line, but gosh I'm glad when someone does. When I get dragged into these sorts of discussions, I generally bring up two points: 1) the majority of people who are shot in America are shot by accident, usually by friends, family, or loved ones. Or to put it another way; your friends, family, and loved ones are the most likely people to be shot by your gun. And 2) places with high gun ownership are less safe.

I've had people dispute that second one with me. They tell me things like "I lived in Texas, and in the bars there I can tell you that everyone is REAL polite." Which is a lovely anecdote, but doesn't actually, you know, mean anything. And so, years ago while living in Sydney, I dug up 3 years worth of per capita violent crime data for Sydney, and for some portion of the San Francisco Bay Area with similar population density (I forget where exactly, but including the bit that I lived in as a kid) and found that for the same time period you were about 6 times more likely to be involved in a violent crime involving guns in the states, and about twice as likely to be involved in a violent crime of any sort. Is this scientific? Oh hell no. It doesn't take into account cultural differences and all sorts of other factors, and it doesn't in any case establish a causal relationship - it could be that people own more guns because its such a dangerous place. But its a fairly obviously glaring statistic all the same.

Unfortunately, I didn't write any of this down at the time, and I get fuzzier and fuzzier on the details with every passing year, so that essentially its stopped being a statistic and started being an anecdote _about_ a statistic. So I was pleased to recently find this site which nicely graphs some of the results of the Seventh United Nations Survey of Crime Trends and Operations of Criminal Justice Systems, covering the period 1998 - 2000. It shows the per-capita murder rate of the US to be 2.85 times that of Australia, but the per-capita firearm murder rate to be 9.51 times that of Australia. And for those who would say "yeah ok, more actual murders, but it deters other violent crime", the per-capita rates of robbery and assault are also slightly lower in Australia (though only slightly. Which could imply that the presence of guns is neither a deterrent _nor a contributing factor_ in these other violent crimes, which to tell the truth I would not have guessed. Or on the other hand, it could mean that Americans are not essentially more - nor less! - violent than Australians, but they _are_ far more likely to kill you when they get violent.)

Anyways, I've had another of my long-winded rants without a triumphant pronouncement to go at the end - there isn't really enough data here to properly draw conclusions from. Mostly I just wanted to store the statistics themselves somewhere that I could find them again the next time I get buttonholed at the bus stop. Its not a simple issue. Saying America would be better off without guns is like saying it would be pleasant to live on a moon made of marshmellow with lakes full of beer; it might be true, but without a realistic plan for getting from here to there its all just pointless daydreaming.

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