With guns, it is often not about good guys and bad guys – posted 3/13/2016
Maybe some readers saw this story which appeared in the Washington Post on March 9. A Jacksonville Florida woman, who was a gun rights enthusiast, was accidentally shot in the back by her 4 year old son. Before it happened, the lady had bragged on Facebook that her boy “gets jazzed up to target shoot”.
Somehow the child managed to get hold of the mother’s .45-caliber handgun that he found on the floor of her pickup truck. The child shot his mother in the back through the seat while she was driving. Fortunately, the mother lived through it.
Then there was the February shooting deaths of two 15 year old girls at a Glendale Arizona high school. The police believe it was a murder-suicide. A suicide note was found. Apparently the shooter approached another 15 year old student on the day before the shooting and asked him to lend her the gun for protection. The male student gave her the gun which he obtained from his house without his parents’ knowledge or permission.
While it remains unclear, the two sophomore girls were in a romantic relationship. The girl who was the shooter had just been informed that the other girl did not love her romantically any more. The two girls both had single gunshot wounds and a weapon was found near the bodies.
I offer these stories because, unfortunately, they are not that unusual. Unintentional, accidental shootings and especially suicides comprise a significant chunk of gun deaths that happen in America every year. These deaths do not fit neatly into the narrative spun by the pro-gun lobby.
In that narrative, the good law-abiding citizens need guns to protect themselves from the bad criminals. Really the world is divided up into these two categories of people. This dichotomy leads the pro-gun lobby to argue for virtually no restrictions on the law-abiding citizens and for harsher penalties for the criminals.
The pro-gun lobby routinely argues that all gun control laws are futile because criminals are indifferent to the law. They are so sociopathic that denying access to guns will not matter because the criminals will find another way to kill if that is their goal.
In an era with mass shootings and terrorism so highlighted in the media, the narrative of the pro-gun lobby gets legs. Fear is the engine.
The problem as I see it though is that there are a huge number of shooting situations that are not fundamentally about good guys and bad guys. The world is so much more complex and multi-dimensional than a dualistic model.
The child who accidentally shoots his mother or the child who accidentally shoots another child is a scenario played out over and over. Is the child who accidentally shoots his mother a bad guy? I think not.
The public health researcher David Hemenway writes that between 1965 and 2000, more than 60,000 Americans died from unintentional firearm shootings. He writes that those 60,000 deaths are more Americans than were killed in our wars fought during the same time.
Hemenway estimates there are two to three accidental firearm deaths each day in the United States and he says that it is just the tip of the iceberg. He writes that more than 30 people are shot unintentionally everyday but do not die. Young people are the primary victims.
As for suicides, Hemenway writes that 50 people a day kill themselves with guns in the United States. In 2010 in the U.S. 19,392 people committed suicide with guns compared to 11,078 who were killed by others with guns. So gun suicides actually outnumber gun homicides almost two to one.
Hemenway says that more people kill themselves with guns than by all other methods combined including hanging, poisoning or overdose, jumping or cutting. For people who want to do themselves in, guns are the most lethal means. About 85% of suicide attempts with a firearm end in death. That is significantly higher than the rate with other suicide methods. Less than 3% of drug overdoses result in death.
Is the distraught lover or the despairing young person caught in a personally overwhelming crisis a bad person? Again I would say no. Life can deal unbearable adversities. I have always liked this Ernest Hemingway quote:
“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”
Contrary to the myth that suicides are typically long-planned deeds, much empirical evidence suggests that many people in crisis act impulsively. In a moment of heightened vulnerability, the psychologically wounded person can act irretrievably.
There was an interesting 2001 study in Houston of people ages 13 to 34 who had survived a near-lethal suicide attempt. The survey asked how much time had passed between when they decided to take their lives and when they made the attempt. 23% said less than 5 minutes; 48% said less than 20 minutes; 70% said less than one hour; and 86% said less than 8 hours.
A Harvard School of Public Health study says that 9 out of 10 people who attempt suicide and survive do not go on to die by suicide later. Interventions, awareness, and denying access to lethal weapons at key moments would likely save many lives.
I know now is the time when pro-gun folks would expect me to offer the usual anti-gun remedies. There is no doubt that the easy availability of guns contributes to both unintentional shootings and suicides. Still, I would like to go in a different direction.
Not every gun reform is about taking away precious guns which seem to be more loved than life itself. Many reforms do not implicate the Second Amendment. I would suggest that people on both sides of the polarized debate could come together in ways they have not in the past.
For example, states could adopt stronger laws to prevent children from accessing unsecured guns. On the positive, New Hampshire already has a chapter in its criminal code about negligent storage of firearms. Many states lack this. Congress could also increase funding for public health research on children injured and killed in unintentional shootings.
There is a sad lack of research on guns and suicide. Just like public health researchers studied cigarettes and lung cancer, we could at least try and obtain accurate data about guns and suicide.
The lack of such public health data is not an accident. Since 1996, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention has been prohibited from doing firearm research. Firearms are the last consumer product manufactured in the United States that is not subject to federal health and safety regulation.
Getting good data on gun-related topics should not be that controversial. It is hard to imagine that anyone would oppose learning more about what mental health treatment would be most effective against suicide as well as what practical steps could reduce the incidence of suicide by gun. It should be clear that what we have done to date has not resulted in decline in unintentional shootings or suicides. We need strong and effective fact-based public health policies that significantly reduce gun death and injury.
It is not anti-gun to want to talk about public health problems related to guns. Public health is about living with guns – not dying from them.