Do Countries With Stricter Gun Laws Really Have Fewer Homicides?

By: Patrick J. Kiger & Nicholas Gerbis  | 

Violent Crime and Guns

The fight for more stringent gun control laws derives in part from the idea that more guns mean more violence. As it turns out, though, in the United States and the rest of the developed world, total murder and suicide rates, from all causes, do not increase with rates of gun ownership — or drop under tougher gun laws [sources: Moyer; Liptak].

The effect of gun laws on gun-related violence is fuzzier and far more controversial but, in general, more guns mean more gun-related violence [sources: Liptak; Luo]. We'll examine this further below.


First, let's look at the relationship between gun laws and violence in general. It is possible to have a violent society without guns. Prime evidence of that is the former Soviet Union and its successor states such as Russia, which despite stringent gun control laws, posted murder rates from 1965-1999 that far outstripped the rest of the developed world [sources: Kates and Mauser; Kessler; Pridemore]. The killers in question did not obtain illegal firearms — they simply employed other weapons [source: Kleck].

On the other hand, Norway, Finland, Germany, France and Denmark, all countries with heavy gun ownership, have a history of low murder rates. According to a 2014 United Nations report, Germany's murder rate of 0.8 killings per 100,000 inhabitants was identical to Luxembourg, where the law prohibits civilian ownership of handguns and gun ownership is rare [source: UNODOC, Kates and Mauser].

The U.S., though, in many ways is a special case. Not only does it have more guns than any other nation on the planet, but it also has far more gun deaths than any other developed nation — six times the homicide rate of neighboring Canada, more than seven times as many as Sweden, and 16 times as many as Germany [source: Lopez].

Within the U.S., the picture isn't as uniform, because in addition to federal regulation, states across the U.S. have their own varying laws on firearms. Opponents of gun control often point to the city of Chicago, which had 797 homicides and 3,561 shooting incidents in 2021, despite Illinois' relatively tough gun laws, as proof that gun control doesn't work [source: NBC Chicago].

But studies suggest that stricter state gun laws do make a difference. In a study published in the May 13, 2013, issue of JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers concluded that states with the most firearm legislation have the lowest rates of firearm-associated deaths, as well as the lowest rates of both murders and suicides with guns. The quarter of states with the strictest laws had 6.64 fewer deaths per 100,000 inhabitants than the quarter with the least regulation [source: Fleegler et al.].

A 2013 U.N. study came to a similar finding. "While the specific relationship between firearm availability and homicide is complex, it appears that a vicious circle connects firearm availability and higher homicide levels," it concluded.

A 2019 study led by Boston University researchers found that states that went beyond the federal standards and imposed universal background checks had a nearly 15 percent lower rate of homicides than states that allowed loopholes for private gun sales. Additionally, tightening restrictions to ban gun purchases by people convicted of misdemeanors involving violence — as opposed to more serious felonies that would cause a rejection by the federal standard — had an even bigger 18 percent drop in the homicide rate. The researchers, however, cautioned that additional studies would be required to determine if the declines were caused by the stricter laws [source: BU].

In some societies, "gun ownership is associated with traditional values of respect and responsibility," whereas in others, "gun availability largely empowers the criminally minded and unstable, adding to the violence and chaos," wrote criminology professor Peter Squires in The Conversation. "High levels of social cohesion, low crime rates and internationally high levels of trust and confidence in police and social institutions do appear to reduce levels of gun homicide." This could explain why the experiences of a country like Norway and a country like the U.S. (both with high rates of gun ownership) are so different.