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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