By the Numbers: Is the UK really 5 times more violent than the US?

There’s been a number of memes circulating claiming that the the United Kingdom has a violent crime rate about 4 or 5 times higher than the United States (see here, here, and here), and Ben Swann, a local TV news reporter out of Cincinnati who is popular with libertarians for his “Reality Check” segments, in fact made that claim when assessing Piers Morgan’s own dubious stats on crime. Is it really true that Britain’s violent crime rate is 4 times higher than ours? There’s reason to be skeptical.

Swann stated that while Britain had only 59 gun-related homicides in 2011 (versus over 8,500 in the United States), this didn’t mean that gun control reduced overall violent crime, since, after all, Britain almost completely banned handgun ownership* in 1997.  But he then cited a series of questionable statistics that warrant further examination.

1. “The US has the highest gun ownership rate in the world.”

This claim is made by people on both sides of the debate, so we can perhaps forgive his error, but the statistic he used to justify it does not prove what he claimed. Swann states, correctly, that the US has an average of 88 guns per 100 citizens (it might be higher–nobody knows exactly how many firearms there are in the US, and figures range from 270 million to over 300 million). But this is not the rate of gun ownership.

To see why, consider the number of pet dogs in the United States. According to the Humane Society, there are 78.2 million pet dogs in the US. Given that there are 132 million households in the United States, this would imply that 59 percent of US households own a dog. But that’s not true: the Humane Society estimates that the rate of dog ownership is only 39 percent. How can this be? Because 40 percent of dog owners own more than one.

The same is true for guns: while there may be as many as 300 million guns in the US, less than half of American households own one. This is the rate of gun ownership that matters: how many Americans actually possess a firearm? It’s not 88 percent or 100 percent–it’s 47 percent. While the US has the most guns per capita, it does not have the highest rate of gun ownership.

For instance, even under Saddam Hussein, most Iraqi households owned at least one gun. I suspect the same is true for many of the poorer and more violent countries high on the list of guns per capita, like Serbia and Yemen†, which, after the United States, have the most firearms per person. Guns are expensive, so in countries that are both poor and violent, we may expect more people probably feel the need to own one for self-defense, while fewer people can afford to keep more than one, thus leading to a more equitable distribution of guns across the population.

2. “In the UK there are 2,034 violent crimes per 100,000 people. …The US has a violent crime rate of 466 [violent] crimes per 100,000 residents.”

Some advice for Mr. Swann: when you see statistics that look unbelievable, you probably shouldn’t believe them, at least until you dig deeper into the data. Based on these figures, it appears that Britain is over 4 times more violent than the US, and since this is all he gives you, that is exactly what he leads his viewers to believe.

What Swann either doesn’t know, or simply doesn’t bother to tell his viewers, is that the definitions for “violent crime” are very different in the US and Britain, and the methodologies of the two statistics he cites are also different. (He probably simply doesn’t realize this: it appears that he lifted his data wholesale from a story in the Daily Mail, without checking it–something you might expect a fact checker to have done.)

First, it should be noted that the figures Swann gives are out of date: in 2010, according to the FBI, the reported rate of violent crime in the US was 403 incidents per 100,000 people–the 466 figure comes from 2007.

Second, and more importantly, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports defines a “violent crime” as one of four specific offenses: murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.

The British Home Office, by contrast, has a substantially different definition of violent crime. The British definition includes all “crimes against the person,” including simple assaults, all robberies, and all “sexual offenses,” as opposed to the FBI, which only counts aggravated assaults and “forcible rapes.

When you look at how this changes the meaning of “violent crime,” it becomes clear how misleading it is to compare rates of violent crime in the US and the UK. You’re simply comparing two different sets of crimes. In 2009/10, for instance (annual data is from September to September), British police recorded 871,712 crimes against persons, 54,509 sexual offenses, and 75,101 robberies in England and Wales. Based on the 2010 population of 55.6 million, this gives a staggeringly high violent crime rate of 1,797 offenses per 100,00 people.

But of the 871,000 crimes against the person, less than half (401,000) involved any actual injury. The remainder were mostly crimes like simple assault without injury, harassment, “possession of an article with a blade or point,” and causing “public fear, alarm, or distress.” And of the 54,000 sexual offenses, only a quarter (15,000) were rapes. This makes it abundantly clear that the naive comparison of crime rates either wildly overstates the amount of violence in the UK or wildly understates it in the US.

Due to fundamental differences in how crime is recorded and categorized, it’s impossible to compute exactly what the British violent crime rate would be if it were calculated the way the FBI does it, but if we must compare the two, my best estimate‡ would be something like 776 violent crimes per 100,000 people. While this is still substantially higher than the rate in the United States, it’s nowhere near the 2,034 cited by Swann and the Mail.

The US has a much higher murder rate than most OECD countries.

Besides the misleading data Swann used, it’s interesting to note the statistics he didn’t give you. For instance, Swann correctly pointed out that it is no surprise the UK has fewer shooting deaths than the US, since handguns are almost totally banned. But he neglects to mention that Britain doesn’t just have fewer gun-related homicides–it has a dramatically lower murder rate all around.

In 2010, the US had an average murder rate of 4.8 murders per 100,000 people4 times higher than the UK’s rate of 1.2 per 100,000, and, coincidentally, the exact opposite of the impression that Swann gives viewers.

Violent crime in the UK has been in decline since 1995
Violent crime in the UK has been in decline since 1995, similar to the US.

And it’s also worth noting that while Swann implied that the UK is more violent than the US because of its handgun ban, violent crime has been declining in Britain since the mid-1990s, and it continued to do so without interruption after the 1997 Firearms Amendment went into effect. Meanwhile, in the United States, gun ownership has been falling steadily, even as the US experienced the same sharp decline in violence beginning in early ‘90s.

None of this disproves the “more guns, less crime” hypothesis (though the statistical evidence on whether gun ownership directly affects local crime rates, up or down, appears to be a wash), nor does it make any of the gun control proposals currently being debated any more attractive.

What it does mean is that Swann’s argument here is disingenuous, factually inaccurate, and fundamentally flawed. At best, he is giving gun enthusiasts bad reasons to support the Second Amendment when perfectly good reasons are already available. By spreading myths, distorting data, and exaggerating the case, Ben Swann is doing libertarians and Second Amendment advocates a disservice.

Gun ownership in the US is declining.
Gun ownership in the US is declining.

Mr. Swann is a journalist who regularly does a segment called “Reality Check,” and by appearing on television as an objective reporter, he is purporting to have looked into and thoroughly vetted the information he passes on to his viewers. While I cannot fault his fans for innocently accepting his claims at face value, there is no excuse for the kind of lazy journalism and ideologically blinkered reporting Swann displayed in this segment.

His job is not to be an advocate for a particular policy, but first and foremost to represent the truth. Unfortunately, in his last report, he did not make an honest effort to look at empirical evidence and draw conclusions from it; rather, because he felt he already knew the answer, he simply regurgitated comforting confirmations of his personal biases, and the internet being what it is, sent them viral. We must do better if we expect to win the argument on the right to bear arms.

* Swann implied all guns were banned, but some kinds of rifle and shotgun are still technically legal in Britain for sporting purposes, with a police permit.

† Here Swann likely makes another error by stating that Yemen is second after the US with 54.8 guns per 100 people — Serbia is second, when you count illegal firearms, with 58.2 guns per 100 people — but the data are conflicting so we’ll give him a pass.

‡ Note on my guesstimate: I included all crimes against the person that involved injury, from murder to female genital mutilation. But many of the 359,000 assaults that caused the less serious “actual bodily harm,” as opposed to the 39,000 that caused “grievous bodily harm,” would not have been classified as aggravated assault in the United States. 

Of the 469,000 crimes against the person without injury, I excluded assaults without injury, mere possession of non-firearm weapons (without intent), harassment, and causing “public fear, alarm, or distress.” This may exclude some incidents, such as assaults on police without injury or hate crime harassment, that could have been considered aggravated assault in some US states. (I’m betting that the understatement bias here and the overstatement bias above are a statistical wash, although I can’t prove that.) I included all 15,000 rapes and excluded all other sexual offenses, like “buggery,” and included all 75,000 robberies.

Update #1 (1/13): As my friend the Skeptic Lawyer pointed out to me, the 776 per 100,000 figure is probably a significant overestimation, and I admit my back of the envelope calculation is a bit dodgy. I would say it is certainly no higher and likely lower.

Of the 400,000 crimes against the person that involved injury, over 350,000 were assaults causing “less serious wounding” involving “actual bodily harm” — which is considered an aggravated assault in the UK but not necessarily in the United States — as opposed those causing “more serious wounding” involving “grievous bodily harm.” The FBI’s definition of an aggravated assault is an attack “for the purpose of inflicting severe or aggravated bodily injury” (emphasis added), typically with a deadly weapon, which seems closer to the British definition of causing GBH with intent.

It’s impossible to know exactly how many of the assaults occasioning ABH would be considered aggravated under the US definition, but if we arbitrarily excluded half of them, the rate would fall to about 591 violent crimes per 100,000, and if we excluded all of them, it would be 271.

Considering how differently crime is treated and defined in the two countries, it’s not possible to parse the data any further, in my opinion. My point was simply to show how incredibly wrong it is to make comparisons of two rates that are measuring fundamentally different crimes.

Update #2 (1/13): As I specifically mentioned above, this data is only for England and Wales. It does not include Scotland or Northern Ireland, which are also part of the United Kingdom. But the same problems of definition hold there as well: any effort compare their violent crime rates to the US will suffer from the same flaws as I demonstrated for the rest of Britain. I wasn’t being sneaky by excluding them — the British Crime Survey and police records reported by the Home Office Statistical Bulletin only cover those regions (Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own report).

Update #3 (1/14): The US does not have the highest homicide rate in the OECD, as might be interpreted by the graph I originally shared from the Washington Post above. Estonia and Mexico are historically much higher. But the US does have noticeably higher assault deaths per capita than Britain or other Western European countries.

Update #4 (1/14): In response to this article, Ben Swann announced on his Facebook page that, after reviewing the numbers, he will issue a correction on his show tomorrow night. As I suggested might be the case, he concludes that Britain’s violent crime rate is still higher than the US.

I’m pleased that he is willing to admit his mistake, but I remain fundamentally skeptical of precise comparisons of the two countries crime rates. My high-end estimate for England and Wales’ adjusted violent crime rate was 776 per 100,000 and the low-end was 271. So it might be higher, it might be lower, but it’s almost impossible to say with certainty.

Update #5 (1/16): In his correction to his earlier report, Ben Swann quoted this article extensively, including my estimate of 776 violent crimes per capita for England and Wales. It should be noted, however, that this is the highest estimate I calculated, although the one I made in the initial post. I suspect it is an overestimation, and the true figure is likely to be closer to the low-end estimate of 271.

My point was not that my number was exactly right, only that the differing definitions meant the comparison Swann made greatly exaggerated violence in the UK . I made a rough estimate purely to demonstrate just how large a difference it made, not because I believed it was an exact figure.

Ben Swann's correction to his earlier report.
Ben Swann’s correction to his earlier report.