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Ever since nine people were killed by a gunman at a historic African-American church in Charleston, S.C., President Barack Obama has taken to various forums to discuss the issue of gun violence in the United States.
In a tweet sent from his @POTUS account on June 20, 2015 -- three days after the killings -- Obama said, "Here are the stats: Per population, we kill each other with guns at a rate 297x more than Japan, 49x more than France, 33x more than Israel."
The tweet clearly struck a nerve; within the first three days, Obama’s message was retweeted almost 40,000 times and favorited almost 30,000 times.
The data appear to come from a credible source, a study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
The Guardian, a British newspaper, used raw data from that U.N. report to create a streamlined, country-by-country table showing selected measurements. One of the metrics included in that table was homicide rate by firearm per 100,000 population.
Here are the rates for the four countries Obama cited, according to the Guardian:
United States: 2.97 per 100,000
Japan: 0.01 per 100,000
France: 0.06 per 100,000
Israel: 0.09 per 100,000
Using this data, the United States has a rate 297 times higher than Japan, 49.5 times higher than France and 33 times higher than Israel -- precisely as Obama said.
We will note a few caveats, all of them common for this kind of claim.
The data is a bit old. It's from 2007 (for the United States, France and Israel) and 2008 (for Japan).
The data is not ideally standardized. The data is culled from various international sources that have different standards and degrees of quality control.
There is at least one different data set. A website produced by the University of Sydney in Australia, gunpolicy.org, has data from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that is slightly different. The ratio was 3.4 times higher than Israel in 2011, and almost 18 times higher for France in 2010. (Japan can't be easily calculated because its rate approaches zero.) Still, the broad patterns held.
David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health, urged caution in making international comparisons, but he added that Obama seems to use the available data responsibly.
"The exact numbers change every year and can change a fair amount since the number of homicides from these other countries are so low each year," he said. Still, he added, "the story the data tell is largely the same whichever source or year is used."
Obama tweeted, "Here are the stats: Per population, we kill each other with guns at a rate 297x more than Japan, 49x more than France, 33x more than Israel."
It’s always worth being cautious of international comparisons of crime statistics, given technical limitations with the data. But even if some data sources produce different numbers than the ones Obama cited, the general pattern is the same -- the United States has firearm homicide rates many times higher than those in the three countries mentioned. We rate the claim Mostly True.
Barack Obama, tweet, June 20, 2015
The Guardian, "Gun homicides and gun ownership listed by country," July 22, 2012
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, "Homicides by firearm," 2014
University of Sydney, GunPolicy.org, accessed June 22, 2015
Email interview with David Hemenway, professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health, June 22, 2015
Email interview with Jaclyn Schildkraut, assistant professor of public justice education at the State University of New York in Oswego, June 22, 2015
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