Is there a correlation between the number of homicides in a country and the number of firearms owned by civilians?
The USA, Serbia, Yemen, Finland, and Norway have the highest number of firearms per capita.
with the most firearms per capita in the world are the USA, Serbia, Yemen,
Finland, and Norway. Some small states are excluded from this statistic. People in Bosnia,
Lebanon, Switzerland, Austria, and Canada also have a lot of guns at home.
The figures are from 2017 and come from the Small Arms Survey research project at a research institute in Switzerland.
The purpose of the Small Arms Survey project was to investigate whether there is a correlation between the number of civilian firearms in a country and instances where such weapons were used to commit violence. Switzerland, where the project was located, is one of the countries with the most civilian firearms.
The Small Arms Survey project has also been involved in Sudan and South Sudan, two African countries where there are a lot of weapons after years of armed conflict.
A billion firearms
In 2018, the project concluded that that there are more than one billion small firearms in the world.
4 out of 10 handguns in the world are found in the USA. The police only possess 2 per cent of these weapons, and the US military has 4 per cent of them.
For Norway, the Small Arms Survey estimated that there were about 29 firearms per 100 inhabitants in 2018. In total, there are over 1.5 million guns in Norway.
In Serbia, there were 39 firearms per 100 inhabitants.
This is far more guns per capita than in most other European countries, but there are also many civilian firearms in Norway's Nordic neighbours. Most in Finland with 32 guns per 100 inhabitants, and least in Denmark with 9 guns per 100 inhabitants.
After the United States, Yemen is probably the country in the world with the most firearms per capita. Serbia therefore follows as number three.
USA does not have the most gun homicides
Nicholas Marsh is a researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). He has participated in the Small Arms Survey project.
“Despite the many firearms in the United States, this is not where we find the highest levels of gun homicides. We find them in countries in Central America and South America, and in South Africa. These are countries where firearms are not very prevalent in the population,” he tells sciencenorway.no.
Marsh cites Mexico as a specific example of a country with many homicides, but not very many firearms among its citizens.
“So it may seem that the amount of weapons in a country is not very significant,” Marsh says. He believes that Norway is also a good example of this, with many firearms and few gun homicides.
The number of firearms and the number of homicides
“In Norway, there are many firearms in people's homes. But many of these weapons are rifles and shotguns that are used for hunting. Such weapons are rarely used in connection with homicide,” Marsh says.
There are several studies that have looked at correlations between the amount of firearms in a population and the number of homicides committed.
When these studies are carried out in the USA, they often indicate a clear correlation.
A study in the American Journal of Public Health, in which researchers looked at homicides committed with firearms in the 50 US states from 1981 to 2010, concluded that states with many guns also have significantly more homicides. For every 1 per cent increase in civilian firearms, researchers found a 0.9 per cent increase in the number of homicides committed with such weapons. Although the researchers cannot say for certain whether there is a causal relationship between the two – that one leads to the other – they did find a very strong correlation between firearms and homicides.
An American study from 2022 found a direct correlation between states with more liberal gun laws and more deaths or suicides by firearms, according to CNN. States like Hawaii and California have the strictest gun laws and the fewest firearm deaths in the United States.
At the opposite end of the scale, researchers found Mississippi to have the most liberal gun laws and the most firearm homicides. It is worth noting that this study was conducted for an organisation that advocates for stricter gun laws.
Criminal gangs are the most dangerous
Nicholas Marsh singles out criminal gangs as something to pay particular attention to.
“Organised criminal gangs in combination with easy access to firearms and a pronounced masculine culture can be a recipe for trouble,” he says. “In Oslo, we see that knives are the weapon most commonly used in connection with violence. But if we get more organised crime and more criminals carrying firearms, we could also have much bigger problems here.”
UN figures point precisely in the direction that Marsh is warning about: Up to 20 per cent of all civilian homicides in the world are now committed by organised criminals.
- Since the turn of the millennium, organised crime and gang conflicts have cost as many lives as all wars did in the same years, according to UN figures.
- Every year, far more people are killed in connection with crime than in war, military conflicts, and terrorism combined. The ratio was 5 to 1 in 2017.
- At the same time, UN figures show that there are fewer and fewer homicides being committed in the world.
Translated by Alette Bjordal Gjellesvik.
Read the Norwegian version of this article on forskning.no
Siegel et al. The Relationship Between Gun Ownership and Firearm Homicide Rates in the United States, 1981-2010, American Journal of Public Health, 2013. DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2013.301409
Small Arms Survey. Global Firearms Holdings, 2020.
UNODC. Global Study on Homicide, 2019.