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America is a violent country

People comfort each other after a mass shooting at a bar in Thousand Oaks, California, U.S. November 8, 2018. REUTERS/Ringo Chiu

In the wake of the mass shooting last night at a southern California country-western bar that killed a dozen people, we are reposting this piece, originally published just over one year ago. 

People often wonder whether the United States is a particularly violent society. Several years ago, the same question led me to take a look at some comparative data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on the rates of death due to assault across different countries. The OECD now has this data for almost all its members from 1960 up to 2014 or 2015. Here is what it looks like.

The short answer is that the United States is a society where an unusual number of people die violently, at least in comparison to other rich, capitalist democracies. That has been true for a long time, and it remains true even though far fewer people now die in the United States as the result of assault than at any time in the past 50 years.

Why this decline has happened is a matter of debate, with potential causes ranging from the demographic (a shift in the age structure of the population) to the organizational (better trauma care for those shot and wounded). As an officially recorded cause of death, “assault” does not pick out the exact mechanism of death, such as a gunshot vs. a stabbing, and so on. It does exclude intentional self-harm and accidents. But there is little doubt that the tendency for assault to be lethal in the United States has a great deal to do with the easy availability of guns.

The United States is not the most violent country in the world, or even the most violent in the OECD by this measure. Mexico has a much higher assault death rate, one that has spiked in the past decade. Estonia experienced a huge wave of (possibly alcohol-related) homicides shortly after its independence in 1991 but has since receded to near-average levels. But when it comes to questions of living standards, public safety, and social policy, Americans do not typically rush to compare themselves with these countries, nor with more violent non-OECD nations such as Honduras or Kyrgyzstan. The countries in the blue zone in the graph include the likes of Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Britain.

Even as overall rates of violent death decline, the horrific, high-visibility mass shooting appears to have become more common in the United States in recent years. It is by now well institutionalized as a mode of violence. When one happens, everybody knows what to do. The past decade has seen innovations in terrorist violence elsewhere in the OECD, too, such as random knife and acid attacks, or driving vehicles into crowds. These are similarly horrifying events and — at least the first few times they are tried — may lead to many fatalities. Do not look for them in the United States, though. Their lethality is intrinsically limited. Using a truck as a weapon is just less efficient than using a weapon as a weapon. For as long as powerful firearms remain easily available to private citizens, the United States is likely to remain well above the OECD average when it comes to violent death.

Kieran Healy is a professor of sociology at Duke University. This piece was originally posted on October 2, 2017.