The Folly of Cross-Cultural Comparisons

No doubt we have all heard the age-old gun control talking point that lower gun related death rates can be attributed to strict gun control laws in countries like Great Britain and Japan. But the question remains, can it really be this simple? As it turns out, like many issues in this world, no. It is much more complex than those who push the gun control agenda would have you believe.

The first and most obvious problem we encounter with such assertions is that at their heart they fail to follow commonly accepted practices for statistical analysis. Put simply, these comparisons lack a control group and are devoid of any variable isolation. Comparing the US with Japan and Great Britain or any other country brings into play so many cultural, societal, demographic, economic, and criminal justice variables that we cannot make fair comparisons between these nations on a wide variety of measures. Just like we seek to hold other factors constant while examining the effects of economic policy, we must also do the same when considering gun related crimes. Gun control advocates have struggled mightily in this endeavor.

To delve a little deeper into the issue, let us consider the Japanese example:

Unlike the US, Japan has an incredibly long history of strict arms control. Starting in 1588, swords and firearms were banned for all but members of the noble class. A few years later, in 1607 gun and gunpowder production was heavily limited to only orders approved by the government. These sort of restrictions on arms ownership, dating back to the creation of firearms has certainly had some effect on the characteristics of Japanese crime.

The above considered, we must examine why Japan can successfully enforce these laws. First and foremost, Japan lacks the sort of privacy protections and rights against unreasonable searches and seizures that US citizens enjoy. It is entirely reasonable for police in Japan to pull someone whom they deem suspicious aside for questioning and examination. Further, police have much more leeway with regard to searching homes and confiscating possessions. Semi-annual police checkup visits to all homes are commonplace and accepted in Japan. Because the Japanese culture holds the government and police in such high reverence, the populace cooperates with these sorts of impositions.

Furthermore, if we consider non-gun related crimes, the US has much higher crime rates than Japan. According to David Kopel, the non-gun related robbery rate in the US is 70 times higher than in Japan. A crime such as murder is seen as highly dishonorable in a Japanese society that is built around honor.On the other hand, suicide is almost twice as common in Japan. This is one reason why it is highly disingenuous to include suicides in gun related death statistics without drawing specific attention to their inclusion. Empirical evidence suggests no link between suicide rates and gun ownership. It would be far more appropriate to concede that the US and Japan are drastically different culturally.

Lastly, it is worth considering that when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, looting, burglary, and other crimes ran rampant as criminals and other classless individuals saw an opportunity. When the tsunami hit Japan, even vending machines were left untouched. Simply put, Japan is a very different society than the United States.

Now we must consider the Great Britain example:

Guns and other arms have also been regulated by the British government for many years, albeit not to the degree that we have seen in Japan. Because of Britain’s relatively low gun related death rates, it too has been cited as frequently as a model for gun control. That said, there are some interesting problems with the British example that must be considered.

First, gun related crime has always been relatively low in Great Britain. That said, Home Office reports suggest a general upward trend in overall homicide rates since the 1968 Firearms Act. Further Home Office data implies that from 1995 to 2005, Great Britain experienced no great change in overall firearm related death numbers. Keep in mind that since 1997, handguns have been heavily restricted in the UK. However, based on numbers provided by Home Office, the 1997 Firearms Act has been largely unsuccessful in reducing gun related death rates in Great Britain.

Secondly, Northern Ireland has less restrictive laws regarding firearms than the rest of the UK, but does not experience significantly higher homicide rates, nor are gun related homicides substantially more common in Northern Ireland. Both Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole experience less than one gun related death per 100,000 people. In Northern Ireland, semi-automatic rifles are limited to rimfire versions, but handguns may be purchased in any caliber and capacity. Though a firearms certificate is required to purchase a gun in Northern Ireland, most common uses are acceptable grounds for issuance.

With the above factors in mind, we can make some conclusions:

Crime in general, including gun related crime, cannot be easily compared between nations. Cultural differences play a huge role in the large disparities we see between nations. It is very possible that more culturally or racially homogenous societies such as Japan, and even the UK to a degree, may be more likely to have lower crime rates. Even so, no simple explanation for the factors that influence crime exists. When looking at the US in comparison to Japan and Great Britain, we are also comparing a continental nation with two island nations. No doubt, recent issues with Mexico and the difficulties associated with securing a continental border are important aspects of an analysis of crime in the US. Gun control advocates also fail to address the failures of restrictive gun laws in several continental European nations when making such comparisons, as is highlighted in the Harvard study by Kates and Mauser.

In conclusion, we simply cannot adequately consider the effects of different justice systems, varied healthcare systems, and distinct economic approaches on crime rates without looking at the picture as a whole. To say that because one nation has one set of laws, another could expect the same outcome from a similar set of laws is woefully naïve. The best we can do in many cases is explore the before and after effects of attempts to regulate firearms in these various nations. Often, we find that the correlation between regulations and actual crime is much weaker than expected.

Source Material:

http://www.justfacts.com/guncontrol.asp#[41]

http://www.graphs.net/200902/uk-gun-deaths.html

http://www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/northern-ireland

http://www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/united-kingdom

http://www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/united-kingdom

Kopel Article:

http://davekopel.org/2a/LawRev/Japanese_Gun_Control.htm

Kates and Mauser Harvard Study:

http://www.law.harvard.edu/students/orgs/jlpp/Vol30_No2_KatesMauseronline.pdf

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