Are Maltans more armed than Pakistanis? Luxembourgers more than Mexicans? Are Danes armed to the teeth, and by comparison Afghans not?
A key feature of the soul-searching to which Americans tend at times of tragedy, including now, are data showing that they are the world’s most-armed people, far surpassing every other nation. We are said to own 88.8 weapons per 100 people, which means that if you are based in the US, and you attended your office holiday party, almost 9 of 10 people were either packing, or capable of being so in relatively quick order.
But do we really own so many guns? Or does a small grouping simply own a lot of guns?
The distinction is important. Because while we are seeing shocking charts suggesting that Americans are brute Neanderthals, the profile of the country—and its politics—are qualitatively different if the bulge more-or-less reflects gigantic arsenals and otherwise a lot of hunters having one or two guns.
A cardinal rule in the responsible application of statistics—versus the mere citation of them—is to take a look to see whether they stand up to what you observe around you. Doing so myself, I find a conflict of perception with the source behind many of the firearms charts: the 2007 Small Arms Survey by the Switzerland’s Graduate Institute of International and Developmental Studies.
Having spent much time in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I am surprised, for reasons suggested above, by their per-capita gun-owning numbers (11.6 and 4.4 firearms per 100 people, respectively) as placed next to those of Denmark (12), Luxembourg (15.3), Malta (11.9), Mexico (15), and many others. Whereas Afghan men often will have a Kalashnikov slung over their shoulder while sipping tea in public, Danes do not seem three times as likely to be armed.
The institute did not respond to an email this morning. But its survey-writers themselves are careful to convey a caveat, such as this one in the 2011 survey: “Poor record-keeping and the near absence of reporting requirements for detailed information complicate assessments of global stockpiles of small arms and light weapons.”
Numbers for registered US guns are more solid than those for many developing countries, and they show that the number of Americans owning guns in fact has shrunk in the last three decades. In 1973, almost half of American households had a gun; in 2010, the number was about 32%.
The November US presidential election created a couple of new strains of political narrative, including that the electorate is rapidly changing. Today the prevailing wisdom is that Americans have become far less supportive of gun restrictions. Yet the numbers again are not so clear-cut. A March 2010 survey by Pew Research did find greater support for the rights of gun owners than for gun restrictions, but only by 49%-45%. In September of the same year, Pew found the numbers reversed, 50%-45%, with the majority favoring some form of gun control. Which means that the subject is dynamic, and the apparent numbers in need of scrutiny.