There’s a reason they don’t call it Factbook. The latest example of a misleading factoid gone viral casts restrictive gun policy as a backfiring failure, with two countries as case studies.
On one side of the post is Honduras, with a population of 8.2 million people and a government that "bans citizens from owning guns." Honduras has "the highest homicide rate in the entire world," the post claims.
On the other side is similarly populated Switzerland, which "requires citizens to own guns" and has the "lowest homicide rate in the entire world."
A reader wanted to know if the post’s counterintuitive message is right.
Here’s why it’s flawed.
We’ll pause on the numbers and start with an overriding issue with the post’s premise. It holds up population as the sole constant that justifies comparing these countries’ gun policy and violence.
Even though Honduras and Switzerland are No. 94 and No. 96 in the CIA’s list of countries by population, this metric alone is not enough reason to compare the effect of different gun control laws in either country.
There’s really no point in comparing the challenges of Honduras, a lower middle-income country in Central America beleaguered by corruption and violence from the drug trade and gangs, to Switzerland, an affluent country nestled in western Europe.
"Of course, what you want to do is compare countries where everything else is the same, except for guns and gun laws, to see if guns and gun laws have any effect," said David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at the Harvard School of Public Health. "Switzerland and Honduras are not even close to being the same in many aspects of their society that will influence the levels of violence and homicide."
The post ignores a litany of cultural, political and socioeconomic factors that play into gun violence, or a lack thereof. The gross domestic product per capita, to name one, is $2,435 in Honduras and $84,733 in Switzerland, according to the World Bank.
"The determinants of homicide rates are multiple and not very well understood, and guns laws may indeed be one among many, many determinants," said Christopher Mikton, World Health Organization technical officer for violence prevention. "But to point them out as the sole cause is wrong."
But even if you choose to ignore the macrofactors, the post messes up the particulars, too.
Honduras indisputably has the highest homicide rate in the world, with estimates ranging from a rate of 90.4 intentional homicides per 100,000 people in 2012, according to the United Nations, to 103.9 per 100,000 population, according to the World Health Organization. This was significantly higher than the rates of neighboring El Salvador (41.2), which has reduced its homicide rate following a truce among gangs, the UN said in its 2013 Global Study on Homicide.
The vast majority, more than 80 percent, of those homicides are linked to a firearm. Lethal shootings most often occur in urban centers and areas along the Atlantic coast and border regions, which suggests the violence is linked to drug trafficking patterns and gangs, according to a report on Honduras by the Small Arms Survey, a Swiss-based research project.
Switzerland’s homicide rate is among the lowest in the world, but the meme goes too far in saying it’s the very lowest. By the UN and WHO measures, the most recent Swiss intentional homicide rate is 0.6 deaths per population.
Several countries — including Japan and Singapore, which have very strict gun laws, as well as Iceland and Luxembourg — posted lower rates than Switzerland in either one or both of the UN and WHO data sets.
The post is wrong about the gun laws in each country.
Honduras doesn’t "ban" citizens from owning guns.
The Small Arms Survey says the most popular gun in Honduras is the 9mm handgun, "which can be legally purchased and owned" — undermining the meme’s claim that Hondurans are banned from owning guns. Because this weapon is banned in nearby Mexico, the UN has said the difference in laws fosters the exchange of illegal weapons between the countries.
An analysis of gun laws in six Latin American countries by Insight Crime, a foundation that studies crime and policy in Central America, characterizes Honduras’ regulations as "light" compared to the "restrictive" laws of Brazil and Mexico and "moderate" laws of Venezuela and Chile. Uruguay also has "light" gun control laws but an incredibly smaller homicide rate than Honduras of about 5.9 percent per 100,000 people. (It also has less organized crime.)
The disparity in homicide rates and gun control laws showed "gun legislation, on its own, means little in terms of gun violence," the Insight Crime analysis found.
The gun culture in Switzerland is altogether different. The country boasts the third-highest firearm ownership per capita rate, trailing the top-ranked United States and Yemen. Honduras is No. 88.
A 2012 Time story about Switzerland’s gun culture notes how citizens hold their right to own guns as a patriotic duty, and Swiss children often join sharpshooting groups to hone their skills.
But, again, Switzerland does not require "citizens to own guns."
The government issues a gun to men for their mandatory military service, but the gun is taken home under "carefully controlled conditions without ammunition," said Mikton, the WHO officer who is also Swiss.
"As soon as they have finished their military service — typically around 30 years of age — they have to return the gun," he said.
Swiss gun laws are more strict than the post implies, though less tough than some other European Union countries. Swiss law requires mandatory background checks on civilian handgun purchases and licenses for the concealed carry of weapons, and it bans automatic weapons.
The viral post aims to jolt readers with a counterintuitive implication: Gun laws can lead to deadly unintended consequences.
But the post is flawed on many levels. The comparison based on similar population size alone is shallow, and non-scientific. Moreover, Switzerland does not have the world’s lowest homicide level, and the post is flatly wrong about the laws in each country.
This claim rates Pants on Fire!