Expert Commentary

Reassessing the association between gun availability and homicide rates at the cross-national level

2011 study in the American Journal of Criminal Justice comparing gun availability and homicide rates across nations.

What is the relationship between firearm availability and murder rates? It’s a complex question, and answering it involves weighing a number of variables.

According to a 2011 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the total number of homicides globally in 2010 was 468,000. Forty two percent of global homicides are committed by a firearm. Yet, homicide rates vary widely by country. Whereas the homicide rate has decreased in several European and North American nations since 1995, homicide rates have increased over the same period in Central America and the Caribbean.

A 2011 study in the American Journal of Criminal Justice, “Reassessing the Association between Gun Availability and Homicide Rates at the Cross-National Level,” examined the way in which cultural and socio-historical factors shape the relationship between gun availability and violence. It focused on countries in three regions: Latin America; Eastern Europe; and developed Western nations. The study, from scholars at Wayne State University and the University of Iowa, analyzed World Health Organization and World Bank data from 43 nations from 2000 to 2005. In the study, “cultural factors” refer to the extent to which variation in homicide rates can be explained by values, norms and beliefs held by members of a society. “Socio-historical factors” refer to the way that gun availability and crime are influenced by the geography of a nation and its collective past.

The study’s findings include:

  • The data “suggest that the nature of the relationship between gun availability, gun homicide and homicide is not stable across nations. Instead, the strength and nature of the relationship between gun availability and violence is contingent upon the region of the world that is examined.”
  • Gun availability made gun homicide more likely in Western developed nations and Latin American nations. In contrast, it exhibited a small negative effect in Eastern European nations.
  • Gun availability had a positive effect on total homicides in Latin America, but in Eastern European nations and Western nations having more guns was associated with comparatively fewer total homicides. “In Western nations citizens appear to be more likely to view guns as the weapon of choice when committing violence, but apparently this preference for guns does not increase overall levels of lethality. Rather, this preference for use of guns seems to decrease overall rates of homicide. Perhaps Western citizens view guns as a defense mechanism against the aggression of others, rather than a tool to be used with the intent of causing great bodily harm or death.”
  • Furthermore, in “Latin American nations it appears that gun availability increases both the preference for guns and the lethality of violence…. An entirely different dynamic seems to be occurring in Eastern European nations. It seems that guns are primarily being used in these nations as a deterrent against potential aggression in an era characterized by weakened collective security.”
  • Several of the variables, such as urbanization and economic inequality, had differing — sometimes opposite — influences on violence in different regions.

The authors conclude that these other variables, which are strong predictors of violence, are significantly influenced by socio-historic and cultural factors. The authors conclude that the relationship among gun availability, gun homicide and homicide does not operate “uniformly across nations to influence levels of violence.”

Related research: A study published in the American Journal of Public Health, “Rates of Household Firearm Ownership and Homicide Across U.S. Regions and States, 1988-1997,” finds that “in areas with more firearms, people of all ages were more likely to be murdered, especially with handguns.” The study does not provide information about causation, however — for example, regional U.S. homicide rates could drive gun acquisition by citizens living there.


Keywords: crime, law, guns, Europe

About The Author