Who is more likely to shoot you, an NRA member or a member of the Crips?
The primary difference between these two groups is culture. NRA members tend to be law-and-order types, whereas Crips (or members of any garden variety American street gang) are rather indifferent or openly hostile to laws.
It is the adherence to a social norm – in this case, obeying or not obeying the law – that influences one’s probability to act violently, which in tern means using a gun to commit unilateral violence (e.g., not self-defense). We saw this in one study that details the propensity of people in poor and crime-ridden neighborhoods to get and use guns for criminal activities.
But what cultural norms influence such behavior? We found a cross-national survey of culture and wanted to see if we could map similarities between nations concerning culture, violence and guns.
The Main Take-Aways
- Gun ownership does not corelate to homicide rates of violent crime.
- Cultural factors, ranging from mistrust to political oppression, do
- The United States situation within the inner cities mirrors some international factors associated with violence.
The World Values Survey is impressive in its goal. They ask over 290 questions of people in 59 countries ranging from Nigeria (median annual income $825) to the United States, China, Canada, and more.
In their survey we isolated 80 questions dealing with cultural beliefs that might influence violence. After testing each, we found 15 that correlated with either a high violent crime or high homicide rate, or both.
Then we added gun ownership rates to dig a bit deeper.
The areas of culture fell into many groups, but only four of them survived analysis by showing statistically significant correlation to violence in general and homicide in particular. This also reduced the number of relevant culture questions down to 15. Three of those questions, all within the classification of “close culture,” had only 15% of countries responding, though those that did produced high correlations to homicides or violent crime.
But that makes this kinda interesting. Over 37 questions mapping cultural attitudes we have 15 that may facilitate violence.
The Final 15
Now for the nitty and the gritty.
|Category of Culture||Ques-tion||Question Text||R2 Homi-cide||R2 Violent Crime|
|Close Culture||Q58||Trust of family||0.11||0.74|
|Q59||Trust your neighborhood||0.41||0.00|
|Q60||Trust people you know||0.46||0.00|
|Societal Culture||Q17||Child obedience importance||0.26||0.00|
|Q19||Neighbors of different race||0.00||0.21|
|Q22||Homosexuals as neighbors||0.02||0.28|
|Q190||Beating children is justified||0.20||0.01|
|Political Culture||Q224||Votes are fairly counted||0.29||0.00|
|Q231||Voters threatened with violence at the polls||0.34||0.00|
|Q253||Respect for individual human rights nowadays in country||0.21||0.04|
|Violence Culture||Q52||Felt unsafe from crime in your own home||0.16||0.21|
|Q69||Confidence in police||0.31||0.05|
|Q70||Confidence in courts||0.20||0.11|
|Q144||Have been a crime victim||0.36||0.23|
|Q145||Family member has been a crime victim||0.32||0.37|
|Firearm Ownership||N/A||Guns per every 100 people||0.01||0.00|
For the uninitiated, an R2 measurement shows the degree of correlation between two variables (e.g., gun ownership and homicides) in a range from 0 to 1, where zero means no correlation and one means complete correlation.
First, there is an elephant lurking in the bottom of this table, namely that for this group of countries, there is no correlation between owning guns and violence. This result is compelling because the list includes modern, democratic nations high on any socioeconomic index (USA, Canada, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, Taiwan), low on such indices (Zimbabwe, Tajikistan, Nigeria, Kenya, Bangladesh), and places in between with their own set of circumstances (Bolivia, Colombia, Egypt, Hong Kong, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Mexico, Turkey). They all also have very, very, very different degrees of gun ownership, ranging from 1 to 68 guns for every 100 people). 1
For there to be no correlations between gun availability and either homicides or violent crime goes against many slogans by many politicians. But let’s leave professional propagandists out of this and get back to culture.
Do pay attention to the column on violent crime, but know that we could not find comprehensive and normalized data for every country. Even the UN Drug and Crime office lacked all the data points, and they try to normalize definitions for crimes across countries. The violent crime correlations are compelling but need to be taken with reservations about robustness.
That said, notice that the highest degree of correlation for homicides and violent crime are all in the “close culture” category and involve trust. “Close culture” was our designation and means that the culture dictates relations with the people you are close to – family, friends, people who live on your street.
This is compelling to the issue of American inner cities and street gangs. The study we noted above, one that mapped guns, violence and trust in poor neighborhoods, showed a general lack of trust between everybody. Lack of trust for neighbors, police, even family. The hypothesis is that a lack of trust, especially trusting the other person will not hurt you, creates a mentality of, “I’m on my own and will do whatever I must to survive”– here in America or in Ecuador, the nation with the most distrustful population.
The big caution here is that very few nations (15%) responded to the Close Culture questions, making these correlations less than robust.
Next, we see that both being exposed to violence and lacking trust in police amplify distrust, which in turn may amplify violence (we accept that high correlation between being a victim of violence and the overall violence rate is obvious). The question is whether being surrounded by a culture of violence disposes one toward violence, or at least to accept that being violent is an alternative. This certainly is at play with American street gangs, so one would expect similar inhumane responses elsewhere.
The cluster for “societal culture” may give us some answers. In this cluster, we measured how people related to others, and we see some interesting divergences. For example, America scores relatively high for not wanting homosexuals or people of a different race as neighbors (scoring 1.87 where the international median was 1.5), but had homicide and violent crime rates that were above the median, but very far below the high end.
One split may be instructive. America scored a bit above the median in thinking obedient children were important (1.8 over the median of 1.7) but low on thinking that it is justifiable for parents to beat their children (2.0, below the median of 2.6). One could interpret this to mean that Americans generally will seek disciplined children, but “spare the rod” in doing so.
The last cluster is “political culture,” where votes being counted unfairly, experiencing violence at the polls, and lacking respect for human rights correlate with more homicides but not more generalized violent crime (in each of these, America scored at or well below the median … though all USA surveys were done before the 2020 election year, so these numbers are from pre-riot days). This finding makes intuitive sense in that being politically wronged is different than both being personally wronged or resorting to general criminality. People who think the government is abusing them have a tendency to retaliate (King George was familiar with this) and a government seeking to oppress people will resort to violence when all else fails.
What to Make of This Tidy Mess?
The important pair of observations are that gun availability does not correlate with homicides or violent crime, but select cultural attitudes and realities do.
If a community lacks interpersonal trust, the members become more violent and deadly (which typifies American inner cities). Where politics is oppressive (as many in the inner cities believe it is), violence becomes more common. Where a lack of faith in courts and cops exists, homicides spike. Where intolerance thrives, so does mayhem.
The important, and quite obvious, reality is that guns only matter when the culture makes people angry, distrustful, and oppressed. Otherwise, guns (and other means) are not used.
We tested homicides and violent crime against both income and income disparity, per the Gini Index. The conclusions were interesting in that violence did not correlate with poverty but did when there was a large gap between the rich and poor.
Many Cautions About All of This
This review is not without problems and limitations, as all studies are. But you need to be aware of them, so take our conclusions from a perspective of this being “helpful insights without the desired robustness.”
- Not all countries had enough survey responses to include in the analysis.
- There were six of 825 remaining cells that lacked data, so we filled them with the average score for their region (e.g., Iran got an aggregate score for the Middle East).
- Though homicide data was available for all countries, a consistent definition for “violent crime” only allowed for one data source (the U.S. Drug and Crime office) and they lacked violent crime data for 29% of the countries, which disallowed for a deeper dive into generalized violence.
The countries that had cultural responses to the survey include:
- Hong Kong SAR, China
- Macao SAR, China
- New Zealand
- Puerto Rico
- South Korea
- Taiwan ROC
- United States of America
- We used estimates from the Small Arms Survey for consistency across nations, though their estimates for the United States differ from some American criminology guesses. ↩