Are American homicide rates exceptional?

“At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.”

Many on the right disagree with this statement, made President Obama Thursday following the tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina. But you might be surprised at which part of the quote they disagree with. Much ink has already been spilled as to why the United States has a problem with gun violence — and there are a number of reasons — but those who seek to avoid action have started by rejecting the premise that there’s a problem in the first place.

At first glance, they have a point. The US does not have the highest homicide rate in the world — not by a long shot. According to the UN office on Drugs and Crime, the United States rates the 111th out of 218 total countries in homicide rates per 100,000 residents. By this measure, America is only in the top of the bottom half of homicide rates.

This is the case made by Bill Whittle of Truth Revolt, a right wing YouTube channel, who says that though America is by far the country with the highest gun ownership, it’s nowhere near the top of the list for homicide rates.

This video has been picked up by several right wing blogs (examples here, here and here). Most of them take great pains to let us know that Honduras, not America, is the murder capital of the world. The case presented and repeated seems to say that America is not exceptionally violent, furthermore the reason for that is our exceptionally high number of guns.

This case has been further echoed since the tragic shooting in Charleston:

Gun via Shutterstock

Gun via Shutterstock

The truth is a little more complicated. Obama didn’t say that the United States has the highest rate of violence; he was only referring to “advanced countries.” We know that violence correlates with income, so comparing our crime rate to Honduras is disingenuous.

I’ve graphed out countries by their GDP per capita and their homicide rates per 100,000. The trend line shows a clear relationship between per capita GDP and homicide rate. No nation over $25,000 GDP per capita comes anywhere near the United States’s homicide rate. The US is a clear outlier among its economic peers. Our homicide rate would be considered within the realm of reasonable expectation if our per capita GPD was comparable to Estonia. The reasons for this can be debated, but the fact that we in America have a problem with gun violence is indisputable.


Luke Riley works in political campaign data and served on the Data Team in Virginia for President Obama’s 2012 re-election efforts.

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9 Responses to “Are American homicide rates exceptional?”

  1. bill says:

    Mass murder is at an all time’s been on a steady decrease over the last 30 yrs…it’s just now everytime something happens it published so ppl can push political agendas…like how a single racist doing something awful somehow means all whites are racist and equals systematic racism

  2. rmthunter says:

    Keep in mind that their go-to source is the NRA, the lobbying organization for gun manufacturers.

  3. King Trollo says:

    two elephants in the room never get pointed out in these arguments:

    no. 1 is that honduras has widespread gun ownership. this may not be known to some americans but it is entirely legal and very easy for sound citizens to own firearms. anyone familiar with the country will tell you how loose their gun laws are.

    no. 2 is new orleans. as we all know, the city has extremely loose gun control and is murder capital of the nation every year nearly. i think saginaw might have toppled it in 2013, but it was murder capital for the previous 10 years running at least.

    its not as if places with loose gun laws have low violence every time.

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  5. Indigo says:

    We are the 21st century’s barbarians.

  6. nicho says:

    It’s because “libruls” are against gun violence and they oppose anything “libruls” are in favor of. That simple. If the “libruls” came out in favor of free ice cream for all kids, the knuckle draggers would be against it.

  7. 2karmanot says:

    Grizzly torture, death, death games, perpetual war, war against women, rape, vicious aggression and their equivalent ‘for children only’ video games have been the staple of cultural popular entertainment for decades. The Society of the Spectacle has turned American culture into a national death fetish.

  8. goulo says:

    It’s weird; I can’t decide whether the pro-gun people sincerely believe that there’s nothing unusual about all the gun violence in the US, or if it’s just a cynical hypocritical talk point for the rubes. Probably a bit of both.

  9. therling says:

    The full quote from Obama’s statement should include the next sentence, “It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency.”

    It has happened in other advanced countries. Everyone knows that. But the truncated quote leaves out the context, and that changes its meaning. This is the fourteenth such mass murder that has happened while Obama’s been in office. His counterparts in advanced countries (meaning, don’t compare it to Honduras) haven’t had to go before their people so often to make a plea for the violence to stop.

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