After the Jan. 8, 2011, attack by a gunman in Tucson, Ariz., that left six dead and and 14 wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., a number of politicians and pundits brought up the issue of whether stricter gun control laws were needed.
One of the lawmakers who made the case for tightening gun laws was Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. In an interview on MSNBC on Jan. 11, 2011. Lautenberg -- who is preparing legislation to ban high-capacity gun clips like the ones used in the Tucson attack -- said, "But the fact of the matter is, when we look at the number of murders in the United States, 2009, we had 9,500 people murdered. When we look around the world, we see large companies -- large countries, the U.K., Germany, Japan had 200 or less killed in a year."
We wondered whether Lautenberg's statistics were correct. First, we'll look at the statistics for the U.S. (Lautenberg said "murders," but the full context of the interview clarifies that he actually meant to say murders by guns.)
According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports for 2009, there were 10,224 homicides in the U.S. that involved a gun. So by this count, Lautenberg's number was actually a little low.
International statistics are harder to come by, but we'll report the best data we could come up with.
Mamoru Suzuki of the National Research Institute of Police Science in Japan e-mailed us to say that there were seven gun murders in Japan during 2009. (This was no anomaly: In 2007 and 2008, Suzuki said, the number was 21 and 10, respectively.)
For the United Kingdom and Germany, we had to extrapolate a bit. We took firearm murder rates -- that is, firearm murders per 1,000 people -- for a variety of nations across the globe, then used national population statistics to reverse-engineer the number of firearm murders in both countries. The data comes from the Seventh United Nations Survey of Crime Trends and Operations of Criminal Justice Systems, covering the period from 1998 to 2000. While more recent data exists for homicides overall, we weren't able to find more recent international figures for killings by firearms specifically.
In any case, for the most recent year available, we found that the United Kingdom had 63 firearm murders, and Germany had 381 firearm murders. These aren't as current as the statistics from U.S. and Japan, and because they're reverse-engineered, they are estimates. But experts we consulted said the figures sounded about right. They were also on par with Canada: Sara Beattie, the homicide survey manager at Statistics Canada, e-mailed us to say that there were 179 firearm homicides in her country in 2009.
So, Japan and the United Kingdom were well within Lautenberg's stated threshold of 200 murders per year. Germany's total exceeded that threshold, but it still represented less than 4 percent of the number of killings in the United States in 2009.
We'll point out three additional bits of context.
The first is that Lautenberg offered an absolute number of killings, not one adjusted according to population size. Population differences can be a significant factor, but in this case, the differences in killings are so great that even adjusting for a country's size doesn't change the comparison very much.
The second is that while the U.S. firearm murder rate is indeed high when compared to most advanced industrialized countries, there are nations that do have higher rates. In the U.N. study, the U.S. ranked eighth out of 32 nations studied, with South Africa, Colombia, Thailand, Zimbabwe, Mexico, Belarus and Costa Rica reporting higher rates.
The third is that not everyone agrees that guns by themselves are the key factor of the relatively high U.S. rate of firearm murders. "The U.S. also has a far higher rate of murders committed with knives, but I doubt that cutlery ownership is any higher in the U.S. than in Japan, Germany, and the U.K.," said Gary Kleck, a criminologist at Florida State University. "America is more violent than other nations in ways unrelated to guns and for reasons having nothing to do with the rate of gun ownership."
We still don't think these pieces of context undermine the accuracy of Lautenberg's statement. The senator was actually a little low in his estimate of firearm homicides in the U.S. for 2009, and he was accurate in saying that Japan and the United Kingdom had fewer than 200 firearm murders. Germany's number is higher than 200, but is still dramatically lower than the U.S. So we rate his statement Mostly True.