Fewer Guns, Less Crime? Not in Europe.

By: Ryan McMaken
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As an addendum to last week’s article on the prominence of civilian-owned guns versus homicide rates, it may be interesting to look at the diversity in gun prominence across European countries.

Contrary to the broad generalizations and over-simplifications spread by US gun-control advocates about European gun control, there is actually quite a diverse range in gun prominence and gun control laws across Europe.

Returning to the Small Arms Survey data, released earlier this year, we see that gun prominence in Europe ranges from 2 per 100 people in Hungary to 39 per 100 in Serbia:

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Comparing these numbers to homicide rates, however, we clearly don’t find much of a relationship at all.

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Homicide rates in nearly all cases are below 2 per 100,000 which is a very low rate by any global or historical standard.

But, as we can see, civilian guns in Austria, for instance, are six times more numerous what they are in the UK. But the homicide rate is lower in Austria. Similarly, there are twelve times more civilian guns in Switzerland than in the Netherlands. Yet both countries have about the same homicide rates.

Attempts at proving causality here then especially starts to go off the rails when we look at Russia. In Russia, there is a modest 12 guns per 100 people — which is about half the Swiss rate. And yet the country’s homicide rate is 10.8 per 100,000.

What can explain these large differences?

In the case of Russia, at least, we certainly can’t blame things on lax gun control laws. Gun ownership requires registration and licensing. Handguns and rifles with shorter barrels are tightly controlled.

By contrast, guns are easier to acquire in Switzerland, Finland, Serbia, and Austria — although we find registration and licensing requirements in most cases. Especially notable is the Czech Republic which, by European standards, has very lax gun laws. In fact, it is remarkably easy to acquire a conceal-carry permit in the country, and more than 200,000 such permits (in a country of fewer than 11,000,000 people) have been issued.

The Czech republic has also made headlines in recent years by additional legislative efforts to further ease gun restrictions in certain cases.

The Czech Republic, by the way, has one of the lowest homicide rates in Europe, at less than one per 100,000.

Household Gun Ownership vs. Gun Prevalence

It is helpful to remember, though, that even in cases where gun prevalence is high, gun ownership rates (on a household basis) might still be low. That is, it’s entirely possible in some cases that only a small number of people own most of the civilian guns that the Small Arms Survey says exist. This could lead to a situation in which few people have guns in spite of there being a large number of guns overall. However, while this is theoretically possible, it has not been demonstrated to be a common occurrence. Moreover, this lopsided situation is more likely in poorer countries where the high cost of firearms, combined with government-mandated licenses, is prohibitive for much of the population, leaving ownership a realistic option open to only a relatively few wealthy residents.

International comparisons in gun ownership rates, however, are hard to find. Most articles that purport to make these comparisons are usually using the Small Arms Survey data, and are thus just comparing gun prevalence.

(At the very least, considering both high gun prevalence and relative ease of purchase in countries like Switzerland, Austria, and Serbia, we have good reason to believe that both gun ownership rates and prevalence are comparatively high in some areas of Europe.)

Few gun control advocates trouble themselves with these details, however. For many, it apparently remains good enough to simply conclude “more guns=more crime,” even when the numbers fail to show much connection at all.

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