Guns, People and Poverty: A Study in What Kills Who


Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.   It’s a logical statement and one that’s hard to argue against. It usually pops up in some form on your social media stream in the aftermath of a mass shooting. Clearly it’s unfortunate that mass shootings happen with enough regularity to be able to present a pattern. The patterned response exists nonetheless.  Since it does, we probably owe it to ourselves to do a little digging on its validity. So we did. We compiled data from three sources: the CIA Fact Book, The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and the World Bank Group. In doing so we were able to establish a complete data set on 71 countries from all regions of the globe that could provide current data on socioeconomic status, homicide, gun violence and urban/rural population density. What the data shows was very telling. Here’s what we found:

If you are going to murder someone, you’re probably going to do it with a gun

Of all the homicides in the 71 countries that contributed to the analysis, two-thirds of them were committed with a firearm. By itself this data point alone says nothing specifically about whether or not guns actually contribute to the chance that someone is going to get murdered. It only shows that the method of choice in homicides is a gun. It leaves plenty of room for the argument that once a person decides to kill someone, they’re going to do it by any means available. The gun is simply the most available. It’s not an impossible argument, though its hard to imagine how people would figure out how to pick up the slack in the absence of such an efficient tool as the gun.

An interesting pattern appears when you include the overall homicide rate along with the percentage of homicides committed by firearm though. What we saw was that as homicide rates rise, so does the percentage of homicides committed by gun. Take Honduras for example, the murder capital of the world at almost twice the murder rate of the next most murderous country Venezuela. The percent of homicides by firearm in Honduras is 83%.   Venezuela’s is 80%. On the other end of the spectrum we have Denmark. Denmark has the lowest homicide rate of any country in the analysis. Less than a third of their homicides were committed by firearm. What the data tells us is pretty clear. If you want to contend for the title of murder capital of the world, you can’t do it without using guns. After all, if you’re in the volume business, efficiency is key. When it comes to killing, guns are as efficient as it gets.

Guns alone actually don’t kill people.

Does the presence of guns alone lead to gun violence? Chalk one up for the gun advocate lobby here. The amount of civilian owned firearms in any given country alone actually has no correlation to the homicide rate. According to the annual UN survey, there’s a lot more guns out there then you would think. Our love affair with the firearm in America is well publicized. With 88 guns for every 100 people, our reputation is warranted. We’re more than twice the next highest country. Not far behind us in the rankings is a country like France. France has about 31 firearms for every 100 people. Both the U.S. and France are nowhere near the top of the homicide list, despite being at the top of the list of the countries with most civilian owned firearms though. To answer the narrowly focused question, do guns kill people? The data is clear. Guns alone do not kill people. There’s a trend hiding in the data though. You just need to add one more ingredient to see it.

Something very interesting happens when you include poverty in the analysis. What we see is that though having a lot of guns does not make for a dangerous society, adding poor people and guns together does. Take a country like Liberia in West Africa. Liberia is the poorest country in the analysis with 80% of its population living below the poverty line. With that level of poverty, it’s pretty easy to assume that they also have a high homicide rate. That would be a poor assumption.   You’re actually more likely to get murdered walking the streets in America than in Liberia. In fact you’re almost 50% more likely. Why? Again, the data is pretty clear. Liberia has no guns. Liberia has one gun for every 100 Liberians. We have 88.

Liberia isn’t an outlier either. Chad, Niger, Senegal, India, Bangladesh and Cambodia are all countries with huge poverty rates from different regions of the globe that all have the types of low homicide rates that rival first world countries. They also all rank in the lower third of all countries in civilian owned guns. When you add guns to poverty you have places like Honduras, Colombia, Mexico and South Africa. These titans of murder find themselves in the top third in poverty and civilian firearm ownership. The data is clear and unambiguous. The secret sauce that leads to the highest murder rates in the world is one part poverty, one part fire arms. Guns don’t kill people. Poor people with guns kill poor people.

So what about America?

Using the Liberia example again we can actually do a pretty useful comparison. If you live in Liberia, you are five times more likely to live below the poverty line than in America. If you live in America you are 88 times more likely to own a firearm than if you live in Liberia.  If you live in America, you are 50% more likely to be murdered than if you live in Liberia.   There’s really only one theory to take away from that comparison. Either we Americans are just inherently more violent than Liberians, or it has something to do with the guns. When you add other countries into that same comparison and we see the same thing over and over again, we start to approach a pretty sound conclusion. Our propensity to own firearms appears to make us less safe than other first world countries and even some third world ones. But if guns alone don’t make us unsafe, which is what we clearly stated previously, then why are we less safe then other countries?

For one, we have so many more guns than everyone else, it’s almost impossible to think that there would be no consequences to that. Even if you were willing to make that leap though, there’s another interesting dynamic with America that you have to consider. Though we are undoubtedly one of the world’s most prosperous countries, we have a much higher poverty rate than our more socialist or communist counterparts. This is no commentary on the evils of capitalism. I’m a big fan. So let’s quickly get past that. What is important though is the fact that we do have concentrated pockets poverty that also have high civilian gun ownership. The result of this is that though our national homicide rate is low relative to the whole group, the consequences of the pattern of poverty and guns on our urban areas has an acutely destructive impact on them. Let’s use Chicago as an example. Chicago is the murder capital of the United States. Pockets of Chicago’s South and West Side have between 40-60% of their residents living below the poverty level. Now add the high civilian gun ownership rate that is experienced across America, you get a very rough outcome.

Numerically speaking, the Chicago Metropolitan area has a homicide rate that would put it in the top ten countries on the planet wedged between Nigeria and Panama. Chicago is not alone. Baltimore is actually worse percentage wise.  It’s on par with Rwanda. Yes, Rwanda, the place with the movies about genocide.  Even less prolific metropolitan areas like Philadelphia, from a homicide perspective, are on par with places like Angola or the Sudan. When you put it in perspective, it starts to feel like something that requires more than a bumper sticker for a solution.

So What?
The striking conclusion that we can take away from this broad analysis is that guns are just another one of many aspects of the human experience that make it much harder to be poor. Like drugs, disease, and recessions, adding guns into poor environments has a disproportionately negative effect when compared to more affluent areas.  In America, the gun control discussion is one of the most divisive and partisan ones that we encounter.  The debate involves special interest groups, culture, tradition and a standing Constitutional debate about what our founding father’s intended. What it rarely involves is fact, data and perspective.  When the loudest voice in a debate leads with rhetoric you get bumper stickers and memes instead of informed insights and decisions.

The data is clear. Without question, guns kill people. Not by themselves of course. No one ever claimed that a gun by itself killed anyone. We should find that particular challenge to gun control insufficient if not insulting.  When the conviction in a debate is on the side least impacted by the negative outcomes of an issue, it should signal a call for those objective few among us to look harder into reality to demand more of the discussion. The analysis is done. The conclusion is a hard one. Guns kill poor people. Whether or not you care about that is up to you.