Following the mass shooting in Charleston, S.C., President Barack Obama claimed that "mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency." PolitiFact rated that claim Mostly False.
The next day, Obama slightly altered his wording to make his claim more accurate. During a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Obama said that "you don’t see murder on this kind of scale, this kind of frequency in any other advanced nation on Earth."
Still, Obama’s words were not without criticism. We flagged one claim from John R. Lott, Jr., founder of the Crime Prevention Research Center, a pro-gun research group.
"The thing that most disappoints me with regard to the president is he just keeps on putting out information that is clearly false," Lott said on Fox News June 24, 2015. "I mean, in the clip that you had, the United States doesn’t have the highest murder rate among developed countries.
"You look at Russia, you look at Brazil, those are countries that have 3 to 5 times higher murder rates than what we have here in the United States. There are other countries which are similar to us."
PunditFact decided to take a closer look at his claim. We found Lott referenced the same information in an article published in the New York Daily News that same day.
"Among developed countries … the U.S. isn’t anywhere close to having the highest homicide rate. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the arbiter of which countries are considered industrialized, ranks Russia and Brazil far ahead of the U.S., with homicide rates that are respectively 2 1/2 to five times higher than ours. Our rate was tied with Chile’s, and just slightly above the average for developed countries."
Lott’s claim has a couple areas worthy of fact checking. First of all, do Russia’s and Brazil’s crime rates match what Lott said? And second, are Russia and Brazil even considered to be developed countries as Lott seems to indicate?
Just the numbers
PunditFact reached out to Lott for more information about his claim. Lott cited data gathered by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
According to the report (which includes statistics for 2011, the latest available year), the United States has a homicide rate of 5.2 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. Comparatively, Russia has a homicide rate of 12.8 murders, and Brazil has a rate of 25.5 murders.
With these numbers, Russia’s rate comes out to be 2.46 times greater than that of the United States, and Brazil’s murder rate comes out to be 4.90 times larger than that of the United States.
Lott mentioned Chile in his op-ed in the Daily News. That country’s murder rate is 4.4 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, which is actually less than the rate of the United States.
Other sources largely support the OECD research, and Lott’s use of the numbers. According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime’s study, in 2011 the United States had a homicide rate of 4.7 murders per 100,000 people, Russia’s murder rate was 9.6 per 100,000 people and Brazil’s rate was 23.4.
According to this data, Russia’s murder rate was 2.04 times higher than that of the United States, and Brazil’s was 4.97 times greater. That’s close to what Lott said.
Developed or Developing?
Now comes the trickier part of Lott’s claim.
Lott was reacting to Obama’s use of the word "advanced" to describe a group of countries, and saying Obama was providing false information. Lott described a group of counties with the word "developed" and included Brazil and Russia.
Those words are important, and whether you consider Brazil or Russia advanced and/or developed makes all the difference.
But just because the OECD includes these 36 countries when compiling its Better Life Index does not mean that they are all automatically classified as developed nations.
The OECD’s member countries "include many of the world’s most advanced countries but also emerging countries like Mexico, Chile and Turkey."
PunditFact reached out to OECD’s Better Life Index to inquire what criteria was used to distinguish between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries, but did not hear back.
However, other experts shed some light on the issue.
According to Massimo Morelli, Columbia University professor of political science and economics, Brazil and Russia are considered intermediate countries. They are not "developing" nations, but not quite considered "advanced/developed," either.
"The so-called BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are those who moved from developing to developed very fast due to fast growth rates, but they are definitely not advanced yet," Morelli said.
However, he did note that out of the four intermediate countries, both Russia and China may be considered advanced in some respects.
Leonid Peisakhin, assistant professor of politics at New York University in Abu Dhabi, agreed.
"There is no hard definition for what an advanced country is. There are different markers having to do with human development levels, levels of industrialization, income per capita, size of the services sector, etc. Russia is a tricky case, as it is, in fact, highly industrialized; however, Russia does not have very high income or human development levels. Brazil is less ambiguously a developing economy," he said.
However, even some of these factors are not always clear cut.
"If you define ‘advanced’ countries based on something simple such as per capita real GDP, I think that you are going to have a hard time including countries such as Chile, Poland, Greece, Portugal, and many others, but not include Russia," Lott said in a follow-up statement to PunditFact.
The World Bank uses GNI (Gross National Income), and not GDP, as its prime indicator. (The total national income is divided by the population of the country to determine the GNI per capita.)
Using the World Bank definition, Brazil is classified as having an upper-middle-income economy, which places it under the category of a developing nation.
Russia is ranked as a high-income nation, and is not labeled as "developing."
For comparison the U.S. GNI in 2013 was $53,470.
Meanwhile, the World Trade Organization allows members to decide for themselves how to classify themselves, although other member countries can dispute the decision.
"Setting aside these ambiguities, there can be no doubt that the U.S. should be compared to other countries with similar levels of income and development and a similar historical trajectory: Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. These are all highly advanced and developed economies with similar historical trajectories and consequently functional rule of law systems," said Peisakhin.
One final note: Out of the nations observed, the United States’ murder rate was only exceeded by three countries in the study: Brazil, Russia, and Mexico. (Mexico is considered emerging or developing by most organizations, including OECD.)
Lott said that the "United States doesn’t have the highest murder rate among developed countries. You look at Russia, you look at Brazil, those are countries that have 3 to 5 times higher murder rates than what we have here in the United States."
Although the specific murder rates vary across different sources, Lott’s statement about Russia’s and Brazil’s murder rates did match up with the information the OECD had.
What didn’t quite match up was the consensus on how to classify Brazil and Russia. They are advanced on some fronts, especially Russia, but not as developed as others.
Ultimately, they may not be the best choice when comparing murder rates in the United States and other "developed" nations.
Lott’s statement is partially accurate. We rate it Half True.