Editor’s note: This story was originally published in October 2017 and has been republished with updated data on gun violence rates.
Every fall the University of Washington produces a report comparing the past year’s rate of gun violence in the United States to the rates in other countries.
The timing of this year’s report couldn’t be more apt — or more grim. The statistics were released on Thursday just as Americans were waking up to the news that a gunman had opened fire the night before at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, Calif. He killed 12 people and was found dead at the scene.
The attack came just 11 days after the fatal shooting that claimed 11 lives at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. Eight months before that, a gunman shot 17 people dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. And just over a year ago a gunman massacred 58 people at a music festival in Las Vegas.
As in previous years, the University of Washington’s latest data indicate that this level of gun violence in a well-off country is a particularly American phenomenon.
When you consider countries with the top indicators of socioeconomic success — income per person and average education level, for instance — the United States is bested by just 18 nations, including Denmark, the Netherlands, Canada and Japan.
Those countries all also enjoy low rates of gun violence. But the U.S. has the 28th-highest rate in the world: 4.43 deaths due to gun violence per 100,000 people in 2017. That was nine times as high as the rate in Canada, which had 0.47 deaths per 100,000 people — and 29 times as high as in Denmark, which had 0.15 deaths per 100,000.
The numbers come from a massive database maintained by the University’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which tracks lives lost in every country, in every year, by every possible cause of death. The 2017 figures paint a fairly rosy picture for much of the world, with deaths due to gun violence rare even in many countries that are extremely poor — such as Bangladesh, which saw 0.07 deaths per 100,000 people.
Prosperous Asian countries such as Singapore and Japan boast the absolute lowest rates, though the United Kingdom and Germany are in almost as good shape.
“It is a little surprising that a country like ours should have this level of gun violence,” Ali Mokdad, a professor of global health and epidemiology at the IHME, told NPR in an interview last year. “If you compare us to other well-off countries, we really stand out.”
To be sure, there are quite a few countries where gun violence is a substantially larger problem than in the United States — particularly in Central America and the Caribbean. Mokdad said a major driver is the large presence of gangs and drug trafficking. “The gangs and drug traffickers fight among themselves to get more territory, and they fight the police,” said Mokdad. And citizens who are not involved are often caught in the crossfire. Another country with widespread gun violence is Venezuela, which has been grappling with political unrest and an economic meltdown.
Mokdad said drug trafficking may also be a driving factor in two Asian countries that have unusually high rates of violent gun deaths for their region, the Philippines and Thailand.
With the casualties due to armed conflicts factored out, even in conflict-ridden regions such as the Middle East, the U.S. rate is worse.
The U.S. gun violence death rate is also higher than in nearly all countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including many that are among the world’s poorest.
One more way to consider these data: The institute also estimates what it would expect a country’s rate of gun violence deaths to be based solely on its socioeconomic status. By that measure, the U.S. should be seeing only 0.46 deaths per 100,000 people. Instead, its actual rate of 4.43 deaths per 100,000 is almost 10 times as high.