Courtesy of Occupy Democrats, with over 31,000 likes and 25,000 shares. This meme highlights the rigorous steps taken to obtain a firearm in Japan. At the end, it cites the low death total from guns in Japan and essentially “drops the mic” and claims a victorious argument for gun control.
Indeed, it’s true that Japan has strict gun control laws. In fact, their firearm and sword law begins by saying, “No person shall possess any firearm or sword”. That’s quite a leap from “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”. It’s also true that Japan has among the lowest rates of gun violence and overall violence in the world. But, is it fair to relate the two? After all, correlation doesn’t equal causation, so we must dig a little deeper before drawing any conclusions.
Gun Deaths vs. Homicides
In any discussion of gun control, it’s misleading to use gun death statistics without addressing all homicides. After all, it’s no worse to be killed by a gun than by other methods. In countries like Japan where there’s a low firearm ownership rate, a much smaller percentage of murders are committed by firearms than in places with high gun ownership like the US. Japanese murders are committed by different means. Therefore, the 11 gun deaths cited in the meme is misleading, as Japan had a total of 442 homicides in 2012. Any honest comparison of violence must include all homicides, not just “gun deaths”.
Still, Japan has very low rates of violence. In fact, the lowest in the world (if we discount the tiny nation of Monaco). The most relevant statistic to compare is homicides per 100,000 people. According to the 2013 UN Office of Drugs and Crime Report, Japan had .35 homicides per 100,000 while the US had 4.7.
Apples to Apples Comparison
In order to plausibly link any correlation with causation, we want to find an “apples to apples” comparison. In this regard, Comparing Japan, a largely homogeneous nation with a distinct culture, with the United States, which has many different cultures and groups, is specious. It would be far more useful and relevant to compare the homicide rate among Japanese with Japanese Americans. This would give us a better idea of how differing gun laws might affect a people of similar culture and background, and reduce many of the variables.
Unfortunately, the FBI doesn’t break down statistics by nationality, but they do break them down by race. This allows us to compare Asian Americans with Asia. Still, not a perfect apples to apples comparison, but a step closer. From their most recent 2015 report, the FBI cites 126 homicides committed by Asian Americans. Given the Asian population in the US is roughly 20 million, this gives us a homicide rate of .63 per 100,000 among Asian Americans. How does this compare with Asia as a whole?
If we look at the UN Report cited above, they report Asia had a murder rate of 2.9 per 100,000. This means that Asian Americans have far lower murder rates than in Asia, despite much stricter gun laws in that region. Of course, there are other factors like higher poverty rates in Asia that could affect this disparity, so it would be improper to link the lower violence with less gun restrictions, but it is an inconvenient fact for gun control advocates.
In fact, the Asian American homicide rate is so low, it would be ranked in the top 5 lowest murder rates in the world! Yes, even below countries like Iceland, Norway and Sweden. If we throw out the outlier of Monaco, the only nations with lower rates are Austria, Singapore and, of course, Japan. For some reason, the lack of gun restrictions doesn’t seem to lead to violence among Asian Americans, in fact the opposite.
High Performers Within High Performers
While we can’t break down Japanese vs. Asian American homicides with FBI statistics, we can see how they stack up in other areas. According to a Pew study, Japanese Americans are among the highest performing subgroup of the already high performing Asian group (in average income, low poverty rates, education, etc.). For example, just 8.4% of Japanese Americans live in poverty, compared with 12.1% of all Asians and 15.1% of all Americans. 77% attend at least some college, compared with 71% of all Asians and 59% of all Americans.
Therefore, we’d expect the Japanese American crime rates to be even lower than the Asian average, just as Japan is lower than the rest of Asia. Given the overall Asian homicide rate in the US is .63, we’d expect an even lower rate (remember Japan has a .35 per 100,000 rate). Thus, while the exact figures aren’t available to us, the homicide rate among Japanese Americans is likely very close to what it is in Japan, perhaps even lower, despite very different gun laws. At the very least, almost all the variance in homicides between the US and Japan would be better explained by other factors than gun control.
While it’s true that Japan has both extraordinarily low rates of violence, and extraordinarily strict gun control, it’s improper to imply the two are causally linked. Since Asian Americans have lower rates of homicides than Asia as a whole, and Japanese Americans likely have the same low rates as Japan, one would be hard-pressed to credit gun control as the causal factor of their low violence. More likely, other elements like cultural values and norms, education or income levels explain why certain groups have lower rates of violence than others.