Guns don't make a nation safer.
That's the conclusion of a study that found a strong correlation between gun ownership rates and the risk of death by firearms in more than a dozen developed countries.
The United States and Japan were on opposite extremes of the scale of gun ownership, with 88.8 guns per 100 Americans and 0.6 guns per 100 Japanese.
They were also on opposite extremes for firearm-related deaths -- 10.2 deaths per 100,000 people in the United States versus 0.06 per 100,000 in Japan. Britain's death rate was also low, at 0.25 per 100,000.
"This argues against the notion of more guns translating into less crime," said Dr. Sripal Bangalore, a cardiologist and director of the cardiovascular outcomes group at New York University School of Medicine, the lead author of the study. The study was based on data from the World Health Organization.
The sole outlier was South Africa, which had 12.7 guns per 100 residents but nearly the same firearm fatality rate -- 9.41 per 100,000 residents -- as seen in the United States.
The other countries were Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey.
The study, published in the current issue of The American Journal of Medicine, also correlated the incidence of mental illness with crime rates in each of the countries and found a weaker, but still significant, association. (Crime rate data were obtained from the U.N. Surveys of Crime Trends and Operations of Criminal Justice Systems.)
"The gun ownership rate was a strong and independent predictor of firearm-related death, whereas the predictive power of mental illness burden was of borderline significance," the investigators concluded. "Regardless of exact cause and effect, the current study debunks the widely quoted hypothesis that guns make a nation safer."
Bangalore noted that his study looked only at correlations. But a sharp reduction in gun deaths in Australia after its gun ownership laws were tightened proved a cause-and-effect relationship there, he said. "I think it's reasonable to expand it to the United States," he added.
Still, Bangalore said he would not go so far as to recommend changes, based on his work, in gun ownership laws.
"We prefer not to go too political into this, but the evidence shows guns don't make the nation safer, and mental illness is also a contributing factor," he said in a telephone interview. "So something needs to be done. It is up to legislators and people who make policies to decide what that should be."
Shootings in Aurora, Colorado; Tucson, Arizona; Oak Creek, Wisconsin; and at Virginia Tech spurred them to look for a relationship between mental illness and access to guns.
The National Rifle Association did not immediately respond to a request for reaction.