Do Countries With Stricter Gun Laws Really Have Fewer Homicides?

By: Patrick J. Kiger & Nicholas Gerbis  | 

Causation, Conflation and Consternation

Spoking bullets falling on ground
Tragic events spark fear and outrage, drive up gun sales and, conversely, inspire calls for expanded (or better-enforced) gun control. Yuchito Chino/Getty Images

One of the reasons gun debates are so difficult to settle, aside from the strong feelings involved, is that the data involved in researching connections between gun laws, gun ownership, gun crime and non-gun crime are frequently mixed, murky, misrecorded and difficult to compare.

In the U.S., crime rates have dropped significantly since the early 1990s and continued to decline through the 2010s, even as gun sales increased, leading some opponents of gun control to argue that more guns actually help to deter crime [source: Bell]. But other analysts argue that other factors — such as the aging of the U.S. population — account for the drop [source: Lind and Lopez].


Still others point to the significant uptick in American prison populations and executions during this period, or to the larger police forces and improved crime-fighting tactics, the flagging crack-cocaine trade, the booming economy, even the legalization of abortion in the early 1970s, which prevented many births to poor single mothers as reasons for declining crime rates [sources: Lott and Mustard; Donohue and Levitt].

Even with a spike in homicide in 2020 and 2021 during the pandemic, the rate of killings per 100,000 residents in major cities is still much lower than it was in the early 1990s, according to a 2022 study by the Council on Criminal Justice [source:]. Meanwhile, Americans continued to buy more and more guns. A study published in Annals of Internal Medicine in late 2021 found that between January 2019 and April 2021, 7.5 million people — 2.9 percent of the U.S. adults who hadn't previously purchased firearms — became gun owners [source: Helmore].

The point is, the "more guns = more violence" argument and the "gun ownership = decreased crime" argument both sidestep the complicating socioeconomic, cultural and psychological factors affecting violent crime. Economic disparities within countries, along with periods of economic downturn, drive up crime and homicides, and violent crimes occurs four times more often in countries with wide income gaps. While economic prosperity tends to decrease violent crime, crime itself can depress community development, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and violence [source: UNODC].

An analysis of crime statistics from 2015 to 2019 by Giffords, a gun safety group founded by former Congress member and shooting survivor Gabrielle Giffords, found that Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Missouri — states that got an F grade from Giffords for the laxness of their lax gun control laws — had significantly higher gun death and gun homicide rates than California, whose gun regulation was given an A by the organization. But Maryland, a state that also rated an A for its strict laws, ranked fifth among gun homicides [source: Woolfolk and Brown].

Violent crime arises from more complicated causes than guns, yet there is no question that guns are associated with a particularly brutal brand of crime. Removing guns from the equation might not stop violence altogether, but might it prevent another Newtown?