America is a dangerous place, where police resort to force too quickly and guns are far too prevalent.
That seems to be the general consensus in Australian news outlets following the past weekend’s Minneapolis police shooting of Justine Damond, who was from Australia. On Saturday night, Damond was killed after police responded to a 911 call over a possible assault in the back alley of her house. Police still haven’t explained why an officer shot her.
In several reports and on front pages across Australian media, the broad sentiment was shock and outrage at police shooting and killing an unarmed woman in her pajamas.
Here, for example, is the front page of the Daily Telegraph in Australia, which called the shooting of Damond an “American nightmare”:
The Courier Mail didn’t give as much space to the tragedy on its front page, but it still expressed shock with its headline, “Shot dead in her pyjamas: Why on Earth did US cops kill Aussie who called for help”:
The sentiment, experts said, is widespread in Australia. The Associated Press reported:
In Justine Damond's native country, news of the meditation teacher's baffling death has dominated the airwaves, newspapers and websites for days, feeding into Australians' long-held fears about America's notorious culture of gun violence.
"The country is infested with possibly more guns than people," said Philip Alpers, a gun policy analyst with the University of Sydney who has studied the stark differences in gun laws between the nations. "We see America as a very risky place in terms of gun violence — and so does the rest of the world."
Damond’s family back in Australia has also demanded a federal investigation into the shooting.
Back in the US, police have not released many details about the incident — not even detailing why Damond was shot in the first place. The officer who shot Damond, who was identified as 31-year-old Mohamed Noor, is on paid administrative leave, which is typical in these cases.
Meanwhile, many Australians are shocked that anything is typical about a fatal police shooting.
American police use force more often than police in other developed countries
The international reaction to Damond’s death offers another reminder: When it comes to gun and police violence, the US is an outlier compared to other wealthy nations.
Police officers in the US shoot and kill nearly 1,000 people a year, according to the Washington Post’s database — far more than other developed countries like the UK, Australia, Japan, and Germany, where police officers might go an entire year without killing more than a dozen people or even anyone at all.
For example, an analysis by the Guardian found that “US police kill more in days than other countries do in years.” Between 1992 and 2011, Australian police shot and killed 94 people. In 2015, US police shot and killed 97 people just in March. These differences are not explained by population, since the US is about 14 times as populous as Australia but, based on the Guardian’s count, has hundreds of times the fatal police shootings.
One explanation for this disparity is that violent crime is much more common in the US, putting police in more situations in which the use of force is necessary. As data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows, the US homicide rate throughout the 2000s was nearly four times the rate of Canada, more than four times that of the UK, nearly six times that of Australia, and more than 10 times that of Germany.
But why does the US have a much higher violent crime rate than other countries? One explanation: Americans are much more likely to own guns than their peers around the world. This means that conflicts — not just between police and civilians but between civilians — are more likely to escalate into deadly, violent encounters.
The research bears this out: More guns lead to more gun violence. Reviews of the evidence, compiled by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center, have consistently found that when controlling for variables such as socioeconomic factors and other crime, places with more guns have more gun deaths. One review of 130 studies in 10 countries, published in Epidemiologic Reviews, also found that new legal restrictions on owning and purchasing guns tended to be followed by a drop in gun violence — a strong indicator that restricting access to guns can save lives.
For police in particular, one study found that every 10 percent increase in firearm ownership correlated with 10 additional officers killed at the state level over a 15-year period.
This is a result of cultural and policy decisions made by the US that have made firearms far more available in America than most of the world. For US police officers, this means they not only will encounter more guns but expect to encounter more guns, making them more likely to anticipate and perceive a threat and use deadly force as a result.
Australia made a deliberate decision to crack down on guns after the 1996 mass shooting at a cafe in Port Arthur that killed 35 people. The Australian government imposed strict gun control measures in response, confiscating roughly 650,000 guns — leading, according to the research, to drops in both murders and suicides.
Back then, Prime Minister John Howard, a conservative, defended the measures by pointing to America’s high death toll from gun violence: “We have an opportunity in this country not to go down the American path.”
Besides the prevalence of guns, other factors, such as differences in police training as well as socioeconomic and cultural variables, play a role as well in America’s higher levels of gun and police violence.
Whatever the cause, the results look simply shocking to much of the developed world.