The day after the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., sparked another round of debate about gun control in the United States, an illustration began making the rounds on Facebook contending that handgun deaths in the United States are wildly higher than in other developed countries.
Emblazoned with a picture of a gun painted with stars and stripes, it reports that, "Last year, handguns killed 48 people in Japan, 8 in Great Britain, 34 in Switzerland, 52 in Canada, 58 in Israel, 21 in Sweden, 42 in West Germany and 10,728 in the United States."
The version we saw had originally been posted Nov. 24, nearly three weeks before the Connecticut massacre. By Dec. 20, six days after the tragedy, it had been shared more than 46,000 times. We wondered if the statistics were correct, especially because there hasn't been a "West Germany" since 1990.
The illustration invites people to call or write to Handgun Control Inc. in Washington, D.C. The phone number no longer works. That's because in 2001 the group was renamed the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Brady is James Brady, President Ronald Reagan's press secretary, who was shot and permanently disabled during an assassination attempt on Reagan in 1981.
When we contacted the Brady organization, they sent us a new illustration with different numbers and listing different countries. It says: "In one year, guns murdered 17 people in Finland, 35 in Australia, 39 in England and Wales, 60 in Spain, 194 in Germany, 200 in Canada, and 9,484 in the United States." Note that it doesn't specify the year, nor does it specify handguns. It talks about all gun homicides.
Brady also sent us a fact sheet from 2010 that lists its sources, which allowed us to spot-check their statistics. We found that most of the numbers come from 2008, their counts were right on (or close to) the mark, and the reports from other countries do not separate handguns from other firearms, probably because the number of firearm homicides is so small to begin with.
We found more recent United Nations data for some of those countries, and they support the pattern.
Let's pause for a moment to acknowledge two points. First, these statistics deal with murders involving guns, not accidental deaths from firearms. The second is an issue of language. The Facebook posting says "handguns killed." The Brady illustration says "guns murdered." The correct phrasing would be "handguns were used to kill" or "guns were used to murder."
The numbers in both illustrations fail to account for a few important factors.
The first is population. The number of gun homicides in Israel is expected to be lower than in the United States because it has fewer than 8 million people compared to more than 313 million in the United States.
Second, the overall homicide rate is generally lower in other Western countries. For example, the murder rate in the United States is more than five times higher than in Germany. A culture where murder is less common is automatically going to have fewer gun deaths.
It's interesting to note how often killers use a gun when they commit a murder. In the United States, two thirds of murders involve firearms. It's less than 10 percent in England and Japan. In Switzerland, it was 72 percent in 2004, although the murder rate is low to begin with. We'll leave it up to gun advocates and opponents to debate the degree to which gun control laws influence the risks reflected in numbers.
Finally, to put the numbers in a broader perspective, many countries have higher rates of gun murders than the United States. They tend to be in South and Central America.
As for the rates in the countries cited in the Facebook posting and the Brady illustration, here are the latest United Nations numbers:
|Country and year of most recent data||Number of firearm homicides that year||Odds of being murdered with a firearm that year||Odds of being murdered that year||Percent homicides involving a firearm|
|United States ('10)||9,960||1 in 31,000||1 in 24,000||67.5%|
|Switzerland ('04)||57||1 in 125,000||1 in 91,000||72.2%|
|Canada ('09)||173||1 in 200,000||1 in 56,000||32.0%|
|Finland ('09)||24||1 in 250,000||1 in 43,000||19.8%|
|Sweden ('04)||37||1 in 250,000||1 in 83,000||33.9%|
|Spain ('09)||90||1 in 500,000||1 in 111,000||21.8%|
|Germany ('10)||158||1 in 500,000||1 in 125,000||26.3%|
|Israel ('07)||6||1 in 1,000,000||1 in 53,000||11.7%|
|Australia ('09)||30||1 in 1,000,000||1 in 83,000||11.5%|
|England & Wales ('10)||41||1 in 1,000,000||1 in 83,000||6.6%|
|Japan ('08)||11||more than 1 in 1,000,000||1 in 200,000||1.8%|
Sources: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and United Nations Statistics Division
A Facebook posting reported, "Last year, handguns killed 48 people in Japan, 8 in Great Britain, 34 in Switzerland, 52 in Canada, 58 in Israel, 21 in Sweden, 42 in West Germany and 10,728 in the United States."
The numbers are wildly out of date. They also omit important context, such as population size or a country's cultural attitudes toward the acceptability of violence and gun use. The list also tends to focus on Western well-to-do countries.
But the phenomenon reported in the illustration is correct. The odds of being murdered by a gun in the United States is far in excess of the risk seen in the countries named in the Facebook posting, and in the newer illustration developed by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
For those reasons, we rate the statement Half True.
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(The second paragraph of our ruling was modified after publication to clarify that cultural attitudes toward violence influence a country's gun-related murder rate.)