Photo by Benedict Benedict, Flickr CC

Given the resurgence of media attention to gun control and violent crime following the mass shooting in Las Vegas, and the recent attacks in New York and Texas, many observers are left wondering – exactly how violent is the United States? In a recent Monkey Cage analysis for The Washington PostKieran Healy suggests that it depends on both how you measure violence and with whom you are comparing.

Violent crime in the United States has declined in the past few decades, but it remains an outlier in assault death rates when compared to similarly-situated nations. Using comparative data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Healy demonstrates that, compared to other OECD countries excluding Mexico and Estonia, the United States has a markedly high assault death rate. Mexico has the highest assault death rate of the OECD countries and Estonia experienced steep inclines during the 1990’s, but Healy suggests that these nations are rarely compared with America in other measures of social interest:

“Mexico has a much higher assault death rate, one that has spiked in the past decade. Estonia experienced a huge wave of (possibly alcohol-related) homicides shortly after its independence in 1991 but has since receded to near-average levels. But when it comes to questions of living standards, public safety, and social policy, Americans do not typically rush to compare themselves with these countries, nor with more violent non-OECD nations such as Honduras or Kyrgyzstan.”

Measures of assault deaths do not distinguish these types of assault, which provides little indication of the specific forms of violence that lead to such a heightened amount of injury in the United States. Healy argues that it is access to guns that fuels the lethality of assaults,

“…there is little doubt that the tendency for assault to be lethal in the United States has a great deal to do with the easy availability of guns….The past decade has seen innovations in terrorist violence elsewhere in the OECD, too, such as random knife and acid attacks, or driving vehicles into crowds. These are similarly horrifying events and — at least the first few times they are tried — may lead to many fatalities. Do not look for them in the United States, though. Their lethality is intrinsically limited. Using a truck as a weapon is just less efficient than using a weapon as a weapon. For as long as powerful firearms remain easily available to private citizens, the United States is likely to remain well above the OECD average when it comes to violent death.”

When it comes to understanding violence in the United States, what matters most is how you choose to measure it. Healy’s assertion that guns are a central characteristic of American violence means that we need comparative measures that help disentangle this form of assault from others.