When gun-control advocates make international comparisons on homicide rates, they generally employ an assumption that places with more stringent gun control laws have lower homicide rates. Unfortunately for them, this only holds up when countries with both high levels of gun control and high homicide rates are excluded from the analysis.
By recognizing the need to exclude most of the world’s nations from this analysis, the gun control advocates are of course implicitly admitting they recognize that gun control cannot explain low homicide rates in many areas. The case of Mexico, for example, illustrates quite well that simply imposing gun control does not eliminate problems with homicide.
So, what can explain these differences? Forced to admit that gun control does not explain low homicide rates by itself, even gun control advocates turn to other factors that are essential. Factors such as income, median age of the population, political stability, and other factors are suggested. Even environmental lead levels may be a factor.
Also important is a lack of cultural and ethnic uniformity within a jurisdiction.
This is especially notable when considering the Americas, where nation-states are in most cases frontier states with populations heavily affected by immigration, a history of conflict with indigenous populations, and institutionalized chattel slavery that lasted until the 19th century. The factors are significant through the region, and the United States cannot be held apart in this regard from the Caribbean, Brazil, Colombia, and other states impacted by all these factors.
Importantly, these factors also make the Americas significantly different from Western Europe and other areas — Japan and Korea, for example — where the present situation is marked by much higher levels of cultural uniformity and quite different recent histories and current demographic trends. This by itself, of course, does not explain all social trends and indicators. But anyone analyzing homicide rates in the Americas will tend to notice immediately that crime rates are high in the Americas overall, although legal regimes vary significantly.
The Academic Literature
There’s nothing remotely new or novel about pointing out the role cultural and ethnic uniformity plays in crime rates. The mainstream academic literature on the topic is fairly robust.
In a now-famous 1942 paper, Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay suggested that what they call “social disorganization” arises from three major factors at the urban and neighborhood level: poverty, ethnic heterogeneity, and residential instability.
All of these factors contribute to lower levels of social cohesion, and thus higher levels of criminality and other socially-undesirable behaviors. In more recent years, researchers have attempted to use statistical data to test the theories of Shaw and McKay, and in at least some cases, have succeeded. Studies in both England and in Brazil have illustrated the importance of considering these social cohesion factors. Other research has focused specifically on the issue of ethnic heterogeneity.
Writing in his book Urbanization and Crime: Germany 1871-1914, Eric A. Johnson found that urbanization did not necessarily lead to increasing crime rates — although this had long been assumed to be a key factor. What did lead to higher crime rates, he found, was the presence of a significant cultural and linguistic minority group within the new urban centers:
[T]he most significant differences between communities with high as opposed to low crime rates were …. usually found … in their death rates and the size of their minority population. The type of ethnic minority population was also of great importance, however, as Poles and Lithuanians were the predominantly minority population in all the communities with high crime rates and large ethnic minority populations.”
The reason why the Slavic minorities had such high crime rates was that they were socially stigmatized, politically repressed, and usually at the bottom of the economic ladder.
Whereas communities made up of purely German speakers of communities with sizable western European minority populations had low death rates, and the Danes and Dutch had very low death rates, the Polish and Lithuanian minorities nearly always resided in communities where people lived hard lives and died young.
The positive correlation … between the male homicide rate and the percentage of ethnic inhabitants in a district demonstrates the the more ethnic the community was, the greater the number of homicide deaths of male inhabitants.
Johnson’s work shows that a key factor in understanding crime rates is understanding the role of minority groups that are seen and treated as distinct from the majority population, in a negative way. These factors are then magnified if there is an economic difference between the majority group — or the most politically influential group — and the minority group in question.
This phenomenon is of course not limited to the 19th century or Europe. Indeed, it is a global phenomenon, and, as Michael Tonry noted in his often-cited book Ethnicity, Crime, and Immigration: “In every country, crime and incarceration rates for members of some minority groups greatly exceed those for the majority population.”
For example, in the Netherlands, the greatest disparities [in delinquency] are experienced by immigrants from Morocco and Surinam, and in Sweden the greatest disproportionality in arrests affects immigrants from Arab states, South America and Eastern Europe. In France, the highest rates of imprisonment affect people from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.
Other modern examples can be found as well.
In the late 19th and early 20th century in Argentina and the United States — according to the natives — it was Italians who were driving increases in crime. Writing in Immigration and Nationalism: Argentina and Chile 1890-1914, Carl Solberg writes:
Between 1887 and 1912 the city’s population tripled, but the number of crimes reported increased seven times. Much of this was blamed on men of Italian descent who had begun to move to [Buenos Aires] in large numbers in the late 19th century, leading one anti-Italian writer in Argentina to remark that the mark of the ethnic Italian was “his inseparable steel knife, his volcanic temperament and his excitable aggressive passions.”
Majority opinions of ethnic Italians in the United States during this period were often even lower.
Acceptance of a correlation in this regard is common throughout the academic literature. However, the given reasons for this correlation vary widely among different political and pressure groups.
White supremacists, of course, seize on this information to make the claim that certain ethnic groups are inherently more inclined toward criminal behavior. When they see the term “ethnic heterogeneity” what they think is “not enough white people.”
There are problems with this assumption however. For one, as noted above, even minorities that are obviously “white” by modern standard can cause higher crime rates to appear, as in the case of the Poles and Lithuanians in 19th-century Germany. Moreover, homicide rates in modern Mexico suggest that it is in the areas where indigenous Indians are most numerous — i.e., southern Mexico — where homicide rates are lowest. It is in the more diverse north — where the population of European descent is higher — where crime and disorder is more common.
Other studies have showed the key factor in many studies of violence is indeed heterogeneity, and not simply “the number of white people.”
A 1950s study of Baltimore conducted by Bernard Lander, for example, found that the rate of delinquency for both whites and blacks in the area rose as the percentage of blacks rose from 0 to about 50 percent, and then decreased as the percentage of blacks rose from 50 to 100 percent. Lander concluded that “[a]reas of maximum racial heterogeneity are characterized by the largest extent of social instability and anomie.”
A 1982 study by Henry B. Hansmann and John M. Quigley concludes that “there is a significant, if complex, relationship between homicide rates and measures of heterogeneity.”
Within the mainstream academic literature, authors often view the genesis of this inter-ethnic conflict as being one in which individuals within minority groups tend to behave differently as a result of legal and social discrimination on the part of the majority.
This view is buttressed by the example of Polish and Lithuanian minorities within Germany, for example, since modern-day Poles within Poland (and modern-day Lithuanians within Lithuania) have unremarkable crime rates. Similarly, one might point to the historical experience of ethnic Italians in the United States and Argentina — and the fact that crime rates in modern-day Italy itself are low in a global context.
These factors continue to be important throughout the Americas, where nation states are frontier states that were settled only recently, in historical terms.
Last year, I noted in this article that there are unique factors that drove the importation of labor — both free and slave — in the Americas. This has led to a modern demographic situation that is in some ways unique to the nation-states of the Americas.
Similarly, when considering the role of ethnic heterogeneity in modern “social disorganization,” the United States is distinct from much of the world in its residential mobility as well. Unsettled communities, coupled with ethnic heterogeneity — at least according to Shaw and McKay — is a recipe for greater levels of crime, poor health, and other negative social factors.
While there is often a temptation to look at these issues as simply a matter to be solved by passing a few laws here and there, the situation is likely far more complex.