The Myth of the Violent America

The United States has long had a reputation for being a violent society. Our imagination of the gun-slinging outlaws in the Wild West was later replaced with the image of crack-addicts and gangs roaming the streets. Countless Hollywood blockbusters have fueled this perception, both in the US and globally, by portraying bank robberies, assassinations, police shoot-outs and brutal gang wars as normal features of the American society. There is no denial that America is far more violent than most, if not all, other western countries. Despite having a population only 10 times larger, the US has 65 times more murders by firearms than Canada and 57 times more prisoners, while only employing 11 times more police officers. The obsession over gun ownership in the US largely comes from the idea that citizens have a real need to protect themselves from violent criminals, as well as being a product of traditional mistrusts towards federal authorities in Washington.

What most of us have however failed to realize is that Americans have been committing fever and fever crimes since the late 1980s.  Violent crimes even fell by more than 5% after the economic recession in 2008, despite all conventional wisdom predicting that criminality will increase when people becomes unemployed. Very few foresaw this development; in fact, two decades ago criminologists and conservative politicians were instead predicting a future where super-predators, “kids that have absolutely no respect for human life and no sense of the future”, would rule the street and force terrorized citizens to retreat to their gated communities. After the killing of 12 students and a teacher at the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, it was often argued that video games were further contributing to this problem by rewarding kids for violent behavior and making them lose touch with reality.

It is nothing new that we are scared of the new generations. Socrates himself claimed that young people «have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders”. A key reason for the misperception in the US is also because of the way media works:  we are generally far more interested in stories that deal with the darker aspects of human nature, so sex and violence sells better than reports on how the society is improving. Studies show that TV-news particular over-report on violent stories, which influence the perception that our neighborhoods are becoming more dangerous year by year.

New York is a key example on how crime in the US has changed. In 1991, the city had 2 245 homicides; last year there were a record-low 333 murders. Tougher policing under former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani are often praised as the main reason for this development. Another key issue is likely the stabilization of the crack cocaine market; in the 1980s New York suffered massively as street gangs fought to establish their territories when this new and lucrative drug was introduced. Violent crime and street gangs remain a significant problem today across the US, but it is not nearly as commonplace as most of have been led to believe.

Do More Guns Mean More Murders?

Gun violence is a major threat to the security in many communities across the globe. No society is unscathed from the deaths caused by guns. Debate about firearm laws flash up every now and then with every tragic episode. Such events compel us to reflect on whether there is a need to reevaluate firearm laws so as to reduce the gun violence.

Gun violence includes intentional crime portrayed as homicide (although not all homicide is considered a crime) and assault with a fatal weapon, as well as unintentional injury and death resulting from the misuse of firearms, sometimes by children and adolescents. Gun violence statistics also may include self-inflicted gunshot wounds (both suicide, attempted suicide and suicide/homicide combinations sometimes seen within families).

The intensity of homicide with firearms varies considerably across the globe, with very high rates in Thailand and South Africa. The level of gun violence is reaching high points in some of the developing countries like; Colombia, Slovakia, Guatemala, and some other developing countries. On the other hand, the rate of gun violence in Singapore, Ukraine, Moldova, and many other countries is very low. Among developed countries, the USA has the highest rate of firearm murders compared to Singapore with the lowest.

A recent United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime “Global Burden of Armed Violence” study by the UN, shows that firearms cause an average 60% of all homicides. The study has provided some answers about the relationship between gun ownership and murder rates. Across the United States, where guns are more available, there are more homicides.

In addition a wide array of indications evince that gun availability is a risk factor for homicide, both in the United States and across high-income countries. Case-controlstudies, time-series and cross-sectional studies point towards homes, cities, states and regions in the US, where there are more guns, both men and women are at higher risk for homicide, particularly firearm homicide.

However, most of the firearms possessors believe that the intent of a gun depends on whose hands the guns are in, which is true to a great extent. Many gun owners want to keep the guns to ensure the safety and protection of their family and kids. According to the U.S. Justice Department, which reports the United States has the largest number of privately owned guns in the world, with an estimated 250 million privately owned firearms nationwide. And this upward trend of keeping firearms at homes is resulting in guns going into the hands of juveniles

Crime: Where It’s Happening and How

Comparative statistics of crime rates around the world draws a surprising, if somewhat amusing, conclusion – the world we now live in is a safer place than before.

Crime in the only remaining superpower is seen to be declining. In US, street crime hovers near historic lows – hence the declaration of certain analysts that life in US has never been safer. And with the apparently downward trend of criminal activities all over the world, the world appears to be a friendlier place – notwithstanding terrorism. This is in sharp contrast to the perception that the world is getting more dangerous everyday.

Though the United States still ranks among the highest in violent crimes among industrialized nations, and also in overall crime, the country is enjoying a decline in crime numbers, nevertheless. In the meantime, crime in many other nations – specifically in Eastern and Western Europe – appear intent on catching up. Low-crime societies like Denmark and Finland are ranking high among street crime rates in the present. Even countries absent from the crime radar are making themselves conspicuous – like another industrialized nation, Japan.

Comparative analysis of crime rate statistics around the world remains complicated. Different definitions of what constitutes a crime make official crime statistics undependable, for one. Still, the United Nation initiative of global crime rates tracking – the World Crime Survey – may offer the most realistic and reliable figures.

Other factors affecting crime levels are:

a. Difference in legal and criminal justice systems
b. Rates of crime report and police recording
c. Differences in the point at which a crime is measured – some countries believes it is the time when the offense is reported; others only do the recording when a suspect in identified and the papers are transferred to the prosecutor
d. Differences in the ruling of which multiple offenses are counted
e. Differences in the lost of offenses to be included in the whole crime figures
f. Differences in data quality

Using the United States as a point of reference, we arrive at the following conclusions:

Burglary – Widely believed as the gravest of property crimes, burglary is lower in US today than in the 80s. As of 2000, US has lower rates than Australia, Canada, Denmark, England, Finland, and Wales. It has higher rates than Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Spain.
Homicide – US had been consistently high in homicide rates than most of the Western countries from 1980 – 2000. Though the rate was cut almost in half in the 90s, it is still higher than all nations without political and social turmoil with the 2000 rate of 5.5 homicides per 100,000 people. Countries entrenched in turmoil like Colombia and South Africa, had 63 homicides per 100,000 and 51, respectively.

Rape – In the 80s and 90s, US rates were higher than most of the Western countries, but by 2000, Canada is leading. Rape reports are lower in Asia and the Middle East.

Robbery – The past 2 decades saw a steady decline in the US. Countries with more reported robberies than US include England, Wales, Portugal, and Spain. Those with fewer are France, Germany, and Italy, and Asian countries plus the Middle East.

In overall crimes (the total of all mentioned crimes), US ranks the highest, followed by Germany, United Kingdom, France, and South Africa.