I've been having yet another exchange with Nate and a few others on gun control (this time on his blog), in which I reiterated my fundamental proposition that the huge disparity between gun crime rates in the UK and US, and the substantial difference between the general homicide rates in the two countries, means that the gun rights proponents' argument that our strict gun laws somehow make us less safe utterly beggars belief, and that the onus thus has to be on them to prove that extraordinary claim. Nate's response was that a one-on-one comparison between Britain and the US represented too small a "sample size", and that once other countries are taken into account a different picture emerges. To illustrate his point, he directed me to a Wikipedia 'league table' of countries ranked by their firearm-related death rate.
Looking at the table, my first reaction was frankly bemusement that Nate would choose to highlight statistical evidence relating to western European countries that clearly weakens his own case. Finland in particular sticks out like a sore thumb that's gone septic with its place close to the top of the rankings. It's almost impossible to see what other significant factor distinguishes it from the many western European countries well below it in the table other than its notoriously lax gun laws. And then there's Switzerland, where guns are ubiquitous due to mass military conscription, although ammunition is more tightly controlled. For a small, relatively harmonious country with a low general crime rate and a high quality of life, a gun homicide rate almost four times as high as England and Wales is startling enough - but a general gun death rate sixteen times as high speaks for itself.
However, Nate was naturally keen for me to look beyond these particular details and instead zone in on countries at the top of the pile, such as Brazil and Mexico, which have in his words "extremely strict controls". If my general assumptions were correct, how could I explain that? My answer was that I couldn't off the top of my head, but that the compelling evidence I'd just seen of a correlation between lax gun laws and a high gun death rate in European countries made me more inclined than ever to think there must be an explanation, and a very good one. Brazil and Mexico are of course extremely different both to European countries and to the USA (not least due to levels of poverty), so there may be any number of factors at play. And while I've always said that I'm not remotely interested in the debased "let's fling convoluted statistics around" type of debate that Kevin Baker and his disciples so revel in, I must admit curiosity finally got the better of me, so I had a little rummage around to see if the claims of "extremely strict controls" on firearms in Brazil and Mexico are really telling the whole story. As it turned out, I didn't have to look much further than Wikipedia once again.
In relation to Mexico, although there are 'UK-style' laws that impose even harsher criminal penalties on transgressors, a rather significant caveat leaps out -
"On the other hand, possession of non-military-caliber small arms by citizens is largely a non-issue. Gun politics are thus not the major issue in Mexico that they are in the neighboring United States, since few Mexican citizens have any gun law difficulties."
Mexican citizens are legally allowed to possess :
"* pistolas (handguns) of .380 Auto or .38 Special revolvers or smaller in either case except the .357 Magnum and auto (Sig),
* escopetas (shotguns) of 12 gauge or smaller, with barrels longer than 25 inches, and
* rifles (rifles) bolt action and semi-auto."
Further information :
"Although there is no legal limit on how many firearms an individual can own, UCAM sells one hand gun for home protection and nine more for shooting and/or hunting. Once any individual has purchased ten firearms from the only retail governmental outlet, he cannot get a permit to buy any more. However, private party sales are legal and are largely uncontrolled, and wealthy gun-collecting citizens thus can legally buy more firearms from other private owners.
Collector permits, somewhat analogous to the FFL Category 03 Curio & Relic permits issued in the United States, are easy to obtain from the Mexican Government and allow the ownership of a wide range of firearms, even including military firearms."
So much for the impossibility of a private citizen legally arming himself to the teeth in Mexico. But the nuggets of information on Brazil are even more jaw-dropping -
"The total number of firearms in Brazil is thought to be around 17 million with 9 million of those being unregistered...
Brazil has the second largest arms industry in the Western Hemisphere. Approximately 80 percent of the weapons manufactured in Brazil are exported, mostly to neighboring countries; many of these weapons are then smuggled back into Brazil. Some firearms in Brazil come from police and military arsenals, having either been 'stolen or sold by corrupt soldiers and officers'."
So a country with no fewer than - if my mental arithmetic isn't letting me down - eight million 'registered' weapons, the second biggest arms industry in the Western Hemisphere, and two clearly-identified routes by which a large number of weapons that start out as legal are ending up in the wrong hands. Does that sound to you like a country that has cracked down with any degree of effectiveness on the problems caused by the legality of firearms? Combine these facts with appalling levels of poverty, and Brazil's place on the leaderboard suddenly starts to look a good deal less mysterious.