The United Nations Speaks Out On Gun Violence

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The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has published a study of global homicide that should be required reading for everyone who has an interest in dealing with gun violence.  The 100+-page report is breathtaking in its scope and detail, and is without doubt the most comprehensive study of its kind to ever see the light of day.  When it comes to talking about crime, violence and guns I’m not usually comfortable with cross-country comparisons because there are so many historical, economic, cultural and social variables that constitute the makeup of any country so as to make comparisons between countries risky at best. But what stands out in this report is its methodology and its comprehensiveness to the point that its analysis and conclusions simply can’t be overlooked.




The report is based on hundreds of published and unpublished sources, as well as homicide data from both law enforcement agencies and public health organizations in just about every one of the 192 countries that comprise the U.N.  I didn’t do an exact comparison, but a quick eyeball of the data appears to suggest that in countries where homicide data is available from both law enforcement agencies and public health organizations, that the latter number is more often higher than the former for reasons that the report does not make clear.  The report also gives very comprehensive, global data on the percentage of homicides in each country that are committed using guns. And here is where a cross-national comparison needs to be made.

Of all the countries that furnished data on the types of weapons used in homicides, the data suggests that slightly more than 40% of worldwide homicides were committed using a gun.  The United States, in this regard, contains roughly 2% of the world’s population but accounted for 4% of the world’s homicides, and has a gun-homicide rate in excess of 60%.  In Europe, by contrast, the gun homicide rate is slightly above 20%.    Last week, as I mentioned in a previous post, the Annals of Internal Medicine published a very important article covering research into suicide and homicide rates relative to access to guns.  The authors found a very strong correlation between gun access and suicide, and a less strong but nevertheless  noticeable link between homicides and guns.

I’ll burden you with only one link to the numerous research that has attempted to prove that there is not only a connection between our homicide rate and guns but the extent to which it is elevated because of easy access to guns.  And this research invariably “proves” this point by comparing data between the United States and other Western countries, most of whom have much lower homicide rates and make it much more difficult to buy and certainly to carry guns.  But in reading the U.N. report one statistic leaps off the page and makes me wonder whether this comparison means anything at all.

According to the U.N., Italy has  homicide rate of 1 per 100,000, which is basically the average for Europe as a whole.  By comparison, our homicide rate in this report is 5 times higher than Italy’s rate.  On the other hand, the report states that 60% of our homicides are committed with guns, but in Italy the rate of homicides committed with guns is nearly 70%.  As I said at the beginning of this post, it’s always difficult to make cross-country comparisons with any degree of certainty, but this comparison at least suggests that the correlation between homicide rates and access to guns may not be all that exact.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not casting doubt on the research efforts or outcomes of my public health colleagues when it comes to explaining the danger of guns.  I’m just impressed by the wealth of data assembled by the U.N. report and I only hope it gets wider attention here at home.


What Do We Do About Gun Violence?


At least two-thirds of the perpetrators who commit gun homicides are males under the age of 30.  What else do these shooters have in common?  They live in neighborhoods with overall high crime rates and low family income, they had previous contact with their victim, all facts that are well known. But there’s another commonality these shooters share which, as far as I can tell, isn’t mentioned in the discussions about gun violence and crime.

The commonality has to do with certain neurological and developmental factors shared by males under the age of 30.  It turns out that the part of the brain that controls processing of information about impulse, desire, goals, self-interest, rules and risk develops latest and probably isn’t fully formed until the mid-20’s or later.  And while adolescents and young adults both perceive and balance ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ as well as older adults, they tend to let peer pressures rather than expected outcomes guide their behavior when they have to choose between risks and rewards.

Now take this neurological-behavioral profile of males between ages 15 to 30 and stick a gun in their hands. The brain research clearly demonstrates that kids and young adults walking around with guns understand the risks involved. Whether it’s the NSSF’s new Project ChildSafe, the NRA’s Eddie Eagle or the community-specific gun safety programs that have expanded since Sandy Hook, nobody’s telling the kids something they don’t already know.

So what can we do to mitigate what President Obama calls this ‘epidemic’ of gun violence when the population most at risk consciously chooses to ignore the risk?  I think the simplest answer would be to look at what communities have done to protect themselves from other kinds of epidemics that threatened public health in the past.  And the most effective method has been to quarantine, or isolate the area or population where the threat is most extreme.  It worked in 14th-century Italy, according to Boccaccio in The Decameron.  Why wouldn’t it work now?

Last month the city of Springfield, Mass., recorded its 12th gun homicide.  If the killing rate continues, the city might hit 15 shooting fatalities this year, a number it actually surpassed  in 2010.  This gives the city a homicide rate of 10.2 per 100,000 residents, nearly three times the national rate.  But the city’s overall rate hides the fact that virtually all the violence takes place in two specific neighborhoods bounded on the north by Interstate 291 and on the south by State Route 83.  There two neighborhoods contain less than 40,000 residents which means that the homicide rates here are 40 per 100,000, more than 10 times the national rate.  This isn’t an epidemic?

2010 springfield homicide

                                                                                             2013 springfield homicides

Springfield Homicides 2010                                                                                                                                                    Springfield Homicides 2013

In 2010, not a single victim was older than 35 and 5 were not yet 20, the average age of all victims was 22.  This year there have been three older victims (+35 y/o) but otherwise the 2010 average age remains about the same in 2013.  If I had room to show the data for 2011 and 2012, the map would be the same.  Why can’t this area be designated a quarantine zone?  Following the designation, the police would behave like public health workers and conduct a residence-by-residence contact with everyone in the quarantine zone.  Ask every resident if they have seen any guns, ask permission to conduct a premise search, create a “watch list” of persons or residences that appear to be particularly high risk.  There’s no Constitutional issues here, you’re not kicking down any doors.  But you are telling people that there is one thing that must be done to curb the epidemic: the epidemic known as violence is carried by a virus known as guns and they must be eliminated in order to reduce the risk.

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