Montana Politics

Murder Rates and Correlations

One of the finest lines in Bob Dylan’s entire songwriting catalog comes, in my opinion, from the song ‘It’s a hard rain gonna fall’ – I want to know my song well before I start singing. It is advice the news media and talking head circus seldom follow, insisting on yammering away without even knowing the basics of what actually happened. For this reason I make it a rule not to form a strong opinion on an event until a week or so has passed and I’ve had a chance to study the reality of the situation. The knee-jerk conversation about gun control after the Sandy Hook murders was intense but ultimately uninformed. Getting to the roots of America’s high murder rates are likely not going to come about by having more guns, or fewer guns, or having more armed guards, or fewer video games.

First off, its important to separate these sorts of mass killings from our overall penchant for killing one another. Mass murders happen throughout the world, largely irrespective of gun laws, gun access, foreign policy, or even culture. Dismissing potential actions because they “Couldn’t have prevented Sandy Hook (or Columbine, or Aurora, etc.) is not helpful. For mass killings, the best remedy is to reduce their prevalence and their lethality. For that purpose, limits on clip size and the fire rate of firearms could certainly have the effect of slowing down a potential mass killer, and legislation to that effect would have next to no impact on the ability of Americans to defend themselves or utilize guns for peaceful purposes.

But the far bigger point, as some gun advocates have also pointed out, is that that Americans are just so prone to killing one another. At 4.2 murders per 100,000 people, the US has a murder rate roughly three or four times that of most Western European countries and Canada, but well below the largest Latin American countries. A great deal was made of the potential correlation, positive or negative, between gun ownership and homicide rate. The statistical evidence, however, does not bear that out – there is at best a weak negative correlation between gun ownership rates and homicide rates, meaning that if anything more gun ownership appears to correlate with slightly lower rates of homicide. there’s a couple potential reasons for this. For one thing, while the US is a huge outlier on gun ownership, European countries tend to have very high gun ownership rates because, frankly, guns are expensive, so the average low-income person is not going to buy one except for for good reason. Moreover, since most countries have some kind of restrictions on who can own a gun, it stands to reason that the more well-qualified gun owners there are, the less relative power criminal gun owners have. Reducing the gun ownership rate is not likely to have a positive effect on our murder rate – which isn’t to say laws making it harder for the tiny percentage of people likely to misuse them are not worthwhile.

More interestingly, there seems to be a closer relationship between homicide rate and wealth inequality. There have been various studies on the issue, and a simple exercise confirms it for those who might doubt the extant studies. There exist reasonably comprehensive lists for income inequality and homicide rate ; pasting them into Excel, removing those countries where data was not available for both metrics, and calculating the Correlation gave me a coefficient of +.5. In other words, while gun legislation may save lives in case of another mass attack, tackling our real murder problem will in all likelihood require chipping away at the monumental levels of inequality in our society.

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  • I am curious about US homicide numbers when the rate at which we murder people of other nationalities is factored in. Without looking at those numbers, which are not made available (those who try to study this are demeaned and ridiculed), this all seems academic and pointless. Add to our private gun ownership rates our stunning war toy arsenal, and it’s apparent that we are a threat to the planet as a whole, and not just ourselves.

    But you are on to something, no doubt. Michael Moore stumbled onto some the same phenonemon in Bowling for Columbine when he discovered that gun ownership in Canada is higher than here, but murder rates are significantly lower. He did not know what to make of it, did not expect it, and so did something unusual: he changed his viewpoint. That never happens!

    I would hypothesize that there are at least two factors at work here worthy of more study: As you say, income inequality, but another factor is propaganda. We are absolutely inundated, and so are frightened of boogeymen from birth. We’re afraid to get on a plane or walk in a poor neighborhood. 9/11 reinforced our fraidycat nature. Fear is resident in all of us. Our movies are aimed at youth and feature heroes with great skill in klling evil people. Are frightened people more likely to kill each other? Does dominance of thought processes by the amygdala contribute to our numbers?

    My guess – of course!

    • I think it is hard to defend gun ownership as the causal factor in our crime rates, and I agree it was interesting to see Michael Moore come to the same conclusion. The ease with which certain people can still get guns, however, could be something. As a said, a globally above-average number of Europeans own guns, but in most cases there is more of a process to determine whether a potential gun owner can be trusted with a firearm. Perhaps this makes them more likely to treat weapons with proper respect, like a drivers license is intended to demonstrate for a teenager eager to get behind the wheel.

      As to our inherent fear leading to our greater rates of killing, there may be something to it. In my personal experience, I have found Europeans to be at least as frightened of their poor neighborhoods as Americans. And there is the fact that Americans have far more to be afraid of, as we are much more likely to die violently than Europeans. If it is that fear and propaganda that makes us more trigger happy, one would expect to find a similar effect in Latin America but greatly diminished in Europe. I’m not sure that’s the case, but then, I don’t even know how you’d measure it.

      I think one of the biggest obstacles to overcoming our homicide rate (and many of our problems, really) is refusing to see how much we have in common with Latin America, historically, socially, and economically. We keep imagining that because most of us look like Brits or Germans and have English or Germanic names that we are similar to those countries. But I’d be willing to bet that the income inequality profile in our most crime ridden neighborhoods and regions resemble Latin America more than Europe and our history is certainly more similar to Brazil than to Britain.

      And, and I’m surprised this hasn’t received more attention, there is the fact that our drug use rates and drug policies are far out of line with low-homicide countries. We use more drugs than other countries, and we focus our law enforcement on low-income users and dealers, leaving the flow of money from high income drug users to dangerous criminal groups largely untouched, even if the individuals doing the distributing are periodically thrown in jail or killed.

      • I would focus first on income inequality, secondly on the fear factor, just as starting points. I cannot speak to fear by others, as my only anecdote is our three weeks in Europe where the only fear we encountered was advice to say out of the subways in Rome, as tourists are prey. railways run smootly, not metal detectors anywhere. People flying from Prague simply get on their planes and go. Americans have to go to their own private gate for frisking, and once back in New York the atmosphere again became very oppressive.

        I think you have effectively ruled out gun ownership as a problem. And I hesitate to mention it, my own fear factor. Americans automatically rule such things out unless it can be shown that foreigners did it, but the Holmes case here in Denver is highly unusual given his background and odd behavior and testimony of eyewitnesses. It’s all under wraps – a judge put a seal on it all last I remember. we don’t take the paper or watch local news, so I don’t know where that stands right now.

        There are indeed lone nuts, many in my experience (I go all the way back to the Texas Tower guy who shot all those nurses in Austin in 1966) but I don’t rule out insanity at any level of our society. But there is a level of income ineqality that people accept – there are always rich and poor. It is the extremes – homeless people aside those who cannot count the number of houses they own – that creates resentment. “Income inequality” is more of what you refer to with us resembling our Latin neighbors – visible extremes, seeing suffering and excess aside one another.

      • To be fair, Craig’s link is a bit more recent and more honest than the one addressed in snopes – it openly admits that the murder rate has gone down, while violent crime remains unchanged. Of course, as noted, US rates of violent crime are not out of line with comparable nations. It is only our murder rate where we are an extreme outlier. However, in spite of recent mass killings, we have managed to bring down our own homicide rate significantly in recent years as well, a change that is as yet unexplained.

    • That is interesting! I hadn’t thought to do a longitudinal analysis of countries that recently implemented gun control (clearly, I am only an amateur statistician!). It’s also not really surprising – people likely to commit a crime are not going to find their gun access significantly decreased over a period of a few years or probably even decades. Homicide rates have fallen in Australia, but they have also fallen significantly in the US. My guess would be that the biggest effect of reducing gun ownership would be to reduce the lethality of crimes of passion and spur of the moment attacks. Pre-meditated crimes will still be possible.

      We’ll see in the next several years what happens in Venezuela, which recently outlawed private gun ownership. Mexico already has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the hemisphere. Certainly being next to a giant country with some of the loosest gun laws in the world and exceedingly ineffective border control doesn’t help, but the fact that Brazil and Venezuela also have such high levels of gun violence would suggest that guns will find their way to killers who want them unhindered by geography or law. The best I think we should attempt is to restrict those firearm components absolutely unsuited to home defense or any other legitimate weapon use (high capacity magazines, primarily) and do what we can to restrict their access to people we already know to be violent.

  • “I have found Europeans to be at least as frightened of their poor neighborhoods as Americans”

    That may be. But what is revealing about this comment is that it is elitist. Are poor Europeans and Americans as frightened by poor neighborhoods as the rich or middle class are?

    How about this: are poor Europeans and Americans frightened of rich neighborhoods? Asked another way, if poor people can access rich neighborhoods, what is there to fear besides “stand-your-ground” and castle doctrine laws? Stop and frisk? Racial profiling? Hazing?

    Should poor neighborhoods be as insulated from the rich as rich neighborhoods are insulated from the poor? Or are they, already?

    Do poor people have the same rights in rich neighborhoods as the rich have in poor neighborhoods?

    Inequity extends in both European and American cultures far beyond just a notion of wealth. The poor are oppressed far more than the rich in many ways: health care, education, access to healthy food, housing, transportation, etc. Do you think that might have something to do with why the rich feel uncomfortable in poor neighborhoods?

    Is there a correlation between socio-economic status and mass murderers? Or only between income level and murder rates? Should guns and bullets be taxed like alcohol and tobacco to a point where only the wealthy can afford them?

    • JC –

      What exactly is elitist about noting that many people feel uncomfortable in poor neighborhoods? It’s hardly a judgement on the people who live there, merely a statement of fact about the attitudes of the people who don’t. As to why this is the case, I think there are a few possible hypotheses. One is certainly that the wealthy generally do not appreciate thinking about the poor, because it makes their own lifestyles harder to justify. And to answer your ‘question’, in many cases, yes, poor people are as afraid of poor neighborhoods besides their own as the wealthy or middle class, again, in my experience. My guess would be, though I don’t have the stats to back this up, that the poor are at least as often the victims of crime as they are the perpetrators.

      As to inequality and crime, the correlation of the two hardly means that it is the poor who are responsible for crime. As Mark was attempting to note (leading up to the question of fear and poor neighborhoods), the fear felt by the wealthy is also a contributing factor to violence. The fact that the wealthy feel they need to arm themselves doesn’t lead to a less violent society, and the fact that the wealthy and middle class feel they need police to keep the poor people in their place certainly doesn’t.

      For that reason, I don’t think anyone was even tangentially suggesting that it is the poor who are responsible for most homicides or that keeping guns away from poor people is the way to solve our murder rate. I didn’t attempt to find a correlation between income level and murder rates, and I’m not sure that one exists to be found. What has been found, and if you read the links you’d know this, is a strong correlation between lack of trust between social groups in a society and high crime rates, and that break down in trust is exacerbated by all the things you’re describing as well as the general income inequality and, I’d guess, the media constantly normalizing outrageous wealth. The consistent gap between the wealth level presented as ideal or even normal, and the wealth that most people can expect to obtain, is a huge strain on societal cohesion, and that is what I believe contributes to the high homicide rates we suffer from in this hemisphere.

      • I think it safe to say that murder among the lower classes might be more prevalent than the elite, and that use of handguns would be common. Murder on a large scale, as in our wars of aggression, is done with sophisticated weaponry and is usually impersonal. We have refined that sort of killing so that murderer and victim rarely see each other.

        I got caught up in this silliness because of the grotesque nature of the Newtown incident. In the 1990’s during the Clinton Administration our government murdered a half a million Iraqi children by starvation and disease. Desk murderers are far more dangerous than a kid with a gun. US operatives, militants and terrorists have busted up wedding parties and indiscriminately bombed cities and towns and inflicted mass casualties that make Lanza look like the piker he apparently is.

        Merry Christmas to all!

  • By the way, just an afterthought – the idea that there is any serous government concern about gun control is a knee-jerk reaction on my part. A citizen with a gun is no match for a blow-dried anchorman with a microphone, and an Apache helicopter would take out Noxon Montana twice before morning coffee. Armed or unarmed, the American citizenry is no threat to anyone in power. That is a side issue.

  • You’re looking at our high homicide rate as a bad thing.

    Quote: People with a criminal record were also more likely to die as homicide victims.[12] Between 1990 and 1994, 75% of all homicide victims age 21 and younger in the city of Boston had a prior criminal record.[36] In Philadelphia, the percentage of those killed in gun homicides that had prior criminal records increased from 73% in 1985 to 93% in 1996.[12][37] In Richmond, Virginia, the risk of gunshot injury is 22 times higher for those males involved with crime.[38] -Wiki.

        • Oh, I don’t know – it just struck me odd that you seemed to be OK with people killing each other off, and then I thought it was humor, and then realized it wasn’t. But who am I – Mother Theresa?

          Merry Solstice.

            • Was sorta of trying to say I was sorry for what I said. But let’s get into it – since Ronald Reagan took office,there have been something like 4,000 people world wide killed by Arab terrorist acts, including 9/11 which actually appears to have been done by Americans and Israelis, another debate. So I am being very generous. An American is more likely to drown in a bathtub than be killed by a terrorist. That’s factual, a real statistic, as like 400 people die that way each year versus what – -0- Americans here in our homeland by acts of Arab terror?

              We, on the other hand, and the Israelies are raining violence all over the globe, killing dozens of people each day, currently attacking Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, Sudan, Colombia etc.

              So in answer to your question, yes, the world would be far, far better off if Americans, Israelis (and Brits) just stuck to klling each other. That is factual and supported by numbers. Now you ight claim that people are killing American soldiers too, but to that I answer that Americans who have invades foreign lands are, sadly, tools and legitimate targets. Bring ’em home, nobody dies.

              • “something like 4,000 people world wide killed by Arab terrorist acts”

                This is really an argument for another day, but you seem to be only counting non-Arabs who died in Arab terrorist attacks.

                • In typical Vietnam fashion, we are murdering them like Tyson chickens and claiming we are the victims. That goes way back in our history, our habit of blaming our victims (and like the mantis, assuming a praying posture before we kill). You can, if you want, chronicle wars among themselves where there is no involvement of the imperialist powers, and have fun with that. You can also, if you are so inclined, chronicle deaths brought about by European wars throughout history, both internecine and aggressive, to award the prize for the most violent people on the planet. SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to give you the answer: Europeans, with Americans included in that classification, the British especially treacherous murdering muhfuhs.

                  Here’s a list, keeping in mind that these lists are suspect and include acts of terrorism perpetrated by agents provocateur, CIA, MI5 and MI6 and Mossad, and blamed on Arabs. Whenever an act of terrorim occurs and a group claims credit for it after, you can bet it was our boys.


                  That in mind, I can go down a long and bloody list of acts of terrorism committed by Americans on Muslims, and randomly pick one of hundreds that exceeds the the total of everything done to us. I’ll reach in the bag now and pick one: Falluja.

                  Muslims are pikers. we are the scourge, the greatest terrorist threat to humanity.

                • “Whenever an act of terrorim occurs and a group claims credit for it after, you can bet it was our boys.”

                  You could use a crash course in logic Mark. At least then you could provide valid arguments supporting your apriori dogma that the blame is always the same- that black and white is all there is. Your arguments still wouldn’t be sound, but at least your conclusions would follow from your premises.

                  You constantly tell people, “You need to learn politics”. Well, you need to learn about fallacies, because nearly every conclusion you draw about politics seems based on one or many. Your badly hidden agenda, and your poor deductive “methodology”, would make for great”Find the Fallacy” homework in an Intro to Philosophy course.

                  Whether you’re right or not, your explanations are proposed in such an illogical form, that others are forced to disregard your conclusions.

                  The old saying Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary
                  Evidence is at work here. Circumstance and fallacy won’t do. Retreat to the possible doesn’t work. Your epistemology sucks.

                • There are several problems with your outlook:

                  1. Perpetrators of state terrorism only rarely admit their crimes, and usually long after they are committed. So Robert McNamara, who lived a charmed life, only decades later on that perhaps as many as 3.5 million Vietnamese died in that war, most civilians. He appears to suffer form latent conscience, a rarity. But given absence of public confession and probing journalists, you can easily attest to absence of evidence as evidence of absence. Name that fallacy.

                  2. You are not going to make any attempt to discover any crimes by your own country. You, like most citizens who pay attention, only pay attention to one side. Name that fallacy.

                  3. Groups that commit what we call “terrorist” acts appear, from all intents, to be insane. They achieve nothing but to draw retribution. So we get supposed Arab conspiracies like 9/11, and see that it benefited only the American war machine. Cui bono? Again, name that fallacy.

                  4. To “claim credit” for a terrorist act can also be called “assigning blame.” One good way to deflect attention is to set up web pages and phone calls that claim credit. Guilty parties would not seem to want to claim blame, unless they appear and disappear in the same day, in which case it is logical to assume they never existed. Name that fallacy.

                  5. What you see is rarely what you get. Reliance on criminals for description of their own crimes, unless speaking in private to one another, is a pointless exercise. So we have to leave the American media bubble to discover any other side to these stores. Agents provocateur is standard practice in warfare. You should be aware of that and skeptical as a result. Name that fallacy.

                  6. The beauty, the genius of American propaganda is that when it works, those who it works on don’t know it, in fact, even deny its possibility. This is the greatest achievement of American propaganda – to convince Americans that it does not exist. Consequently, you presume to know that it doe snot work on you. Name that fallacy.

                  I realize, of course, that these are not categorical fallacies, and instead speak not to argumentation processes, but absence of curiosity on your part that creates a kind of hubris wherein you deny the possibility of other explanations of world events other than those provided by Americans, and therefore never investigate.

                  That’s not a fallacy. It’s a state of mind. As John Lennon might remind you, had he survived, rather than attacking people who carry alternative views to your American exceptionalism, you need to “free your mind instead.”

                • “Free your mind”? Really Mr Lennon?

                  Quote:”Lennon was indeed a heavy drug user, as has now been acknowledged by most people who knew the musician well, including Ono and Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia Lennon. The same is true of Goldman’s claims about Lennon’s tendency towards violence, a tendency Lennon himself owned up to in a Playboy interview.”

                  Looks like he freed these two lives.

                  Quote:”Among Goldman’s most serious charges are that Lennon was not only instrumental in the murder of a sailor whom he met in Hamburg, but also in the death of bandmate Stuart Sutcliffe. Goldman states that Sutcliffe’s death was the long-term result of severe kicks to the head administered by Lennon in a fit of drunken rage. He also alleges that Lennon caused the death of an unborn baby he’d conceived with Yoko Ono during 1968, when he kicked the pregnant Ono in the belly during an argument.”-Both quotes from Wiki.

                  Looks like you’re really enjoying that free smoke down in CO.

                • Very funny indeed. No matter what Goldman may have written about Lennon, the words “free your mind instead” are what I used and I stand by them. If you are under a thought control regime, as Americans are, his words could not be more apropos.

                • Bringing this post back to its origins with Lennon was certainly a stroke of genius Mark.

                  For everyone knows if John would’ve had a Concealed Carry Permit instead of taking 5 rounds to the chest while flashing the peace sign he could have prevented his own murder.

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