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Alaska's contradiction? Lots of guns, few homicides

Alaska's homicide rate had been dropping and the number of homicides by gun is lower than many locales, including Luxembourg. istockphoto

Can someone familiar with the country's latest gun-control debate explain Alaska to me?

This is a gun-crazy state. Guns are everywhere. About 58 percent of Alaskans own a gun, according to the Washington Post. Given that the U.S. Census says the average household size in the 49th state is 2.65 people, there is, on average, 1.53 guns per household.

Or to make this simple, there is basically a gun in every house.

Alaska homicide rate dropping

And yet, the Alaska homicide rate for 2011, the latest year for which figures are available, was 4 per 100,000 people. That's significantly lower than the 6.4 per 100,000 people for New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg likes to brag about how many guns the New York Police Department has taken away from the citizenry, and about a fifth of the homicide rate for Chicago (19.4 per 100,000), a city with stringent gun control that has been labeled the world's "Deadliest Global City."

But none of that really concerns the question that begs an answer.

If guns in and of themselves are evil, if more guns means people are more likely to kill other people, why does the death toll for Alaska "firearms homicides" stand at 2.6 per 100,000? Actually, the number is probably lower than that now. The data on specifically how people kill each other -- with guns, knifes, beatings -- dates to 2004, and the Alaska homicide rate has fallen about 25 percent since then. But suffice to say, fewer than half the people killed in homicides in Alaska are killed with a gun.

The state's gun-homicide rate is a low number. At 2.6, your odds of being shot and killed in Alaska are lower than your odds of being murdered in the European principality of Liechtenstein (2.8 per 100,000) and about the same as your odds for being murdered in Luxembourg (2.5 per 100,000). Neither country is known as a hotbed of violent crime.

Swiss mandate gun ownership

Then again, the chances of being killed with a firearm in Alaska -- or in Liechtenstein or Luxembourg, for that matter -- are a lot higher than the chances of being murdered in Switzerland. The death rate there is 0.7 per 100,000, and gun ownership is mandatory for men of military age, some of whom are volatile young men. Some studies in this country have pinpointed men between the age of 21 and 30 as responsible for 40 to 50 percent of all homicides. The Swiss, however, arm them. And they don't only arm them, they give them assault rifles.

"Between the ages of 21 and 32 (all) men serve as front-line troops. They are given an M-57 assault rifle and 24 rounds of ammunition which they are required to keep at home," according to the BBC. The 24 rounds is a government requirement. People can buy more if they want.

(A personal note here. Young men casually handling automatic weapons in train stations and elsewhere in Switzerland always scared the beejesus out of me. It isn't so much that they are armed with automatic weapons, but that their handling sometimes seemed inattentive, even careless. Nonetheless, there do not appear to be a lot of accidental shootings in Switzerland, or at least people dying from accidental shootings.)

The Swiss clearly illustrate there are factors other than the simple availability of guns in play when it comes to violence, death and firearms. And so, it would seem, does Alaska. With all the guns around in the 49th state, why do slightly more people die due to knifings, beatings or other violence -- 3.05 per 100,000 -- than shootings -- 2.58 per 100,000?

Status symbol?

Or maybe the better question is this:

Why is death by firearm so much more prevalent in major U.S. cities, most of which have made it harder for people to legally obtain guns than in the Wild West of Alaska? Wouldn't you think that given gun control in those places, the ratio of knife, beating and other deaths would increase in proportion to gun deaths?

Or have gun bans, helped by pop culture, simply made it something of a status symbol to kill someone with a firearm in urban America?

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com