What makes America’s gun culture totally unique in the world, in four charts

December 15, 2012

The deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary is provoking another heated round of the same conversation that the U.S. has after every mass shooting: is there something particular or unusual to our gun culture? The answer, based on this comparative data from the international Small Arms Survey, is that yes, American gun ownership rates are positively unparalleled.

These three charts show America's gun ownership as compared to the rest of the world. In every chart, the U.S. is colored red so that it's easy to spot. It's also, you'll notice, by far the highest number on every chart. This first chart shows the rate of privately owned guns per capita in every nation in the world, ranked from least to most.


Click to enlarge. Data source: Small Arms Survey (Max Fisher/Washington Post)

Americans don't just have more guns that anyone else – 270 million privately held firearms. They also have the highest gun ownership per capita rate in the world, with an average of about nine guns for every 10 Americans. The second highest gun ownership rate in the world is Yemen; yes, Americans have nearly twice as many guns per person as do Yemenis, who live in a conflict-torn Arab nation still dealing with poverty, political unrest, a separatist Shia insurgency, an al-Qaeda branch, and the aftereffects of a 1994 civil war.

This next chart just shows the gun ownership per capita rate for the "developed" countries, or the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). That basically means the world's rich countries. Some of them, such as Switzerland and Finland, are actually among the highest-ranking countries in the world by gun ownership rates. But the U.S. is still way, way ahead. Keep this chart in mind the next time someone compares U.S. gun ownership to Switzerland or to Israel.

Israel has only 7.3 privately owned guns for every 100 people, which means that the American rate is 12 times as large. For comparison's sake, Israel's gun ownership rate is about 12 times that of Japan. That means that the difference between America and Israel, in terms of gun ownership per capita, is about the same as the difference between Israel and Japan, which has perhaps the strictest gun control regime in the world.


Click to enlarge. Data source: Small Arms Survey (Max Fisher/Washington Post)

This chart next shows the 10 countries with the highest per capita gun ownership rates in the world. It's a pretty motley bunch. Recent war zones such as Yemen, Serbia, and Iraq are on there, but so are relatively developed (and peaceful) Switzerland, Finland, and Sweden. The fact that Swiss gun murder rates are much lower than Iraq's are a reminder that, yes, there is a lot more to determining a national rate of gun-related homicides than just firearm ownership. Still, as we saw in a previous post, Switzerland also has an unusually high rate of gun-related murders. It's not as high as America's, but then again neither is their gun ownership rate.


Click to enlarge. Data source: Small Arms Survey (Max Fisher/Washington Post)

This last chart, just for kicks, shows the total number of privately owned guns for every country in the world. It's not a perfect comparison because the U.S. is, of course, the third most populous nation on Earth. But it is worth noting this one effect of America's unusually liberal gun laws, which contribute to its sky-high private ownership rate: there are a lot of guns in America. There are 270 million guns owned by American citizens, according to the survey data. The second-ranking country, India, a country over three times our population, has 46 million. And, as you can see from the data, the vast majority of the world's countries have fewer 10 million guns held by its citizens.


Click to enlarge. Data source: Small Arms Survey (Max Fisher/Washington Post)

America's gun-related murder rate is the highest in the developed world, excluding Mexico, where the ongoing drug war pushes the murder stats way up. The question of what causes the U.S. firearm-related homicide rate is a complicated one involving many variables, but it certainly seems plausible, especially the day after a knife attack in China injured 22 children but killed none, that one of those variables would be access to firearms. And, in this regard, America is truly exceptional.

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Max Fisher | December 14, 2012