With gun violence constantly in the headlines, we tend to believe that the rate of gun homicide is closely related with the rate of civilian firearm possession. In other words, if you have more guns, you probably have more gun-related homicides, right? Well, in fact, when we compare data from the U.S. to Latin America, we see that this might not always be the case.
In the U.S., there are more guns than people (101 guns for every 100 people) but the rate of gun homicide per 100,000 people is only 3.43. Uruguay is another prime example: 32.6 firearms for every 100 civilians, the second highest rate after the U.S. But Uruguay’s rate of gun homicide is only 4.78 per 100,000 people, one of the lowest in the region.
At the other end of the spectrum is Honduras, where gun ownership has a rate of 9.9 per 100 people, around average for the region, but nevertheless they have a gun homicide rate of 66.64 per 100,000 people, the highest, not only in Latin America, but worldwide. Another example is Colombia, with a possession rate of only 6.9, and a 32.93 rate of gun homicide, the fifth highest in the region.
We organized the graph from north to south, to see whether gun ownership increased the closer you got to the U.S. border—in other words to see if there was evidence of leakage of guns acquired in the U.S. to the south. (Call it the trickle down theory of gun acquisition and ownership, if you will.) The theory holds true for Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries. But then in the rest of Central America the trends go down, and spike back up in South America, with one of the furthest countries from the U.S., Uruguay, having the second highest rate of gun ownership after the United States.
So, if the common sense explanations of “more guns lead to more homicides” and “the closer you are to the U.S., the greater the likelihood of gun prevalence” don’t hold true, what is explaining these trends?
As the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) suggests, other factors may be at play, including high levels on inequality, gang activity, poor public education, and drug trade. A different study suggests that the lack of rule of law, police corruption and weak judicial institutions better explain high levels of homicides. All of these factors would help understand Central America’s high homicide rate. But what explains, for example Uruguay, a country that exhibits none of those trends but has the second highest rates of gun ownership in the Americas? Could it be pistol packing gauchos—ready to defend their herds from predators but not shoot a fellow human?