Here we go again, with another horrific campus shooting, the predictable postmortem game of blame, grief, evasion and inaction—and the President once again expressing anger and barely concealed despair at how “routine” it has all become. I’m well aware that there’s hardly a patch of American life more trampled on and muddied—and bloodied—than the quagmire of gun laws, the Second Amendment, and our nation’s high level of gun violence. But it may be worth reviewing some facts.
The U.S. suffers about 30,000 gun-related deaths a year—per capita, around fifteen times the rate of other developed countries. In 2010, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, these deaths broke down roughly into 11,000 homicides, 19,000 suicides, and 600 accidental deaths. Half of all suicides and two-thirds of all homicides are by firearm, with handguns constituting the large majority of weapons used (rifles account for only 300 homicides per year.) Domestic violence statistics reveal that 1000 women per year are murdered by spouses, boyfriends and exes—accounting for 94 percent of all murders of women in this country—and that the presence of a gun in the household drastically increases the risk of homicide.
The type of research done by Matthew Miller of Harvard’s School of Public Health, and other public-health specialists, reveals a strong association between rates of household firearm ownership and rates of violent death. It is true, as gun-rights advocates insist, that some portion of gun-related deaths is caused by hardened criminals who will probably get guns no matter what. But as Miller points out, most gun deaths—the suicides and the domestic- and acquaintance-violence deaths, which together account for three-quarters of all gun deaths—are situational, often impulsive actions. Take suicide, for instance. It turns out that 90 percent of those who survive a suicide attempt never try again. I was surprised by that, having long suspected that suicidal people will inevitably find a way to do it. In fact, most people attempt suicide at what turns out to be the absolute nadir in their lives, the perfect storm of misery. If they can survive that moment, most will not try again. But guns are so lethal that those who use them almost never survive. There are 750,000 suicide attempts per year in this country; those who use guns are successful 85 percent of the time, while those who use pills succeed only 2 percent of the time. This likely explains why U.S. states where gun ownership is prevalent have a much higher suicide rate. There’s no indication that people in Wyoming are more depressed than in Connecticut; they simply have handy a more effective means of killing themselves.
Gun deaths that arise from domestic violence, arguments in bars, and so on, follow a similar pattern. To a large extent these are situational, impulsive, opportunistic events—and having a gun present drastically alters the consequences. An act of violence occurs...and the presence of a firearm turns it lethal. This is what Harvard’s Miller means when he says, interestingly, that we don’t have a violence problem, but a lethality problem. In this way, reality is nearly the opposite of the NRA mantra. Guns do kill people—again and again, in situations where something else substituted in the gun’s place (a fist, a knife, a pill) might well not have.
Then again, a lot of reality contradicts the NRA’s talking points. Having engaged with gun-rights advocates (more on that in a minute), I’m well acquainted with logical fallacies, sophistry, and inflammatory rhetoric. A lot of it is easily answered. Take, for instance, the refrain that “cars kill more people than guns, so should we outlaw cars?” No, of course not—what we should do is what we do, namely, regulate their use. We require new drivers to be trained. We require insurance—or you can’t use your car. We created speed limits. We required seatbelts. We have automobile inspections. We take licenses away from alcoholics and the impaired elderly. We don’t let little kids drive. And on and on. These measures have drastically lowered traffic fatality rates over the decades. Treating guns with similar respect for their lethal capacity seems likely to do the same. In fact, the analogy with guns is pretty perfect. Nobody wants to take cars away; we just want their use to be safer. Why don’t more gun owners understand this and accept it? Instead what you get is furious resistance on every point.
To me perhaps the most discouraging plank in the gun-rights platform is the insistence that the efficacious response to gun violence is more guns, carried by more people, in more places. Doesn’t common sense suggest adding firearms to an airplane, city-council meeting, lecture hall, or barroom on a Saturday night will not increase safety? Believing such craziness betrays an inability, or refusal, to think statistically, and a readiness instead to embrace a neat division of all humankind into the “bad guys,” who are out to wreak havoc, and the “good guys,” who need guns to stop them. Inevitably when you engage in debate with a gun-rights advocate, he cues up some version of the following lurid scenario: “You’re asleep in the middle of the night when an intruder armed with a knife breaks in and threatens to rape and kill your wife and daughter. Are you telling me you don’t want to have a gun?” And when you say, well, of course in that situation I would want a gun, he treats it as the great Aha! moment.
But the hypothetical is tendentious; it doesn’t pose the right question. The right question would be, “Given the relative likelihood of a maniacal sadist breaking into a home to terrorize the family versus the likelihood, over a decade or more, of that family’s children or someone else getting their hands on the gun and causing a terrible accident, or the gun being used during a moment of discord or temptation to suicide—given all that, would you say that introducing a gun into a home adds to overall safety in the coming decade, or detracts from it?”
This is the kind of question that public-health researchers like Matthew Miller address. And their findings make it crystal clear that if you think you are bolstering your family’s security by buying a gun, you are simply wrong. Sure, in your mind you may be motivated by that scary scenario of the armed intruder in your house. But statistics show that the chances of this happening, and of you using a firearm to avert it, are far smaller than the chance of someone in your home being harmed or killed—via suicide, accident, or domestic violence—with that same weapon. In other words, the presence of a gun in an American house immediately and substantially increases the likelihood that someone will be harmed. Gun owners respond to this by saying, “Not in my household!” Well, people don’t like to see themselves as statistics. But this refusal makes them far more likely to become one. The difficult truth is that “good guys” often end up causing harm. There’s strong evidence that having guns around makes us less safe, not more.
I assume that in all of this I’m on the same page as almost all Commonweal readers; so instead of preaching to the choir, let me describe my experience—highly discouraging—of outreach to the other side. Two years ago I wrote an op-ed in the Hartford Courant describing a scary run-in I had in the parking lot of a department store, where I'd gone to buy a bike for my seven-year-old daughter, with a guy who falsely accused me of scratching his truck and tried to pick a fight, screaming profanities at me. Amid the post–Sandy Hook conflicts over gun control, I used the incident to question the NRA's position that arming more people will make daily life safer; if either of us in that parking lot had been armed, I wrote—or if both of us had—it is very easy to imagine the conflagration becoming lethal.
The article loosed a cascade of abuse online. I was “pathetic,” “a clown,” “wuss,” “girlie man,” “loser” and “snob.” One commenter invoked a grimly detailed “hypothetical” scenario in which I was accosted by an armed assailant and, for want of a gun, could only watch, “helpless,” as he murdered my daughter before my eyes, and the police arrived to “draw the outline of her crumpled-up lifeless little body.”
I was startled by the level of malice and the violently ad hominem tilt of the commentary. For a while I dove into the fray, writing a follow-up piece and earnestly engaging gun advocates on various websites. Wading through the tangled slanders, I found myself looking for someone, anyone, willing to engage in a civil conversation and a mutual effort at problem-solving. There was hardly anyone. I made outreach, and got little back but scorn.
So I get it when President Obama expresses a weary frustration that sounds like hopelessness. Because to me, honestly, it seems hopeless. To reduce gun deaths in this country there are plenty of things I can imagine trying, from amped-up background checks to smart guns, insurance and liability, and so on. But in politics you need partners. And as far as I can see, there’s nothing on the other side but fanaticism, anger, suspicion and an iron refusal to engage. The attitude hovers somewhere between blind faith and dark fetish. Here in Connecticut, mere days after the Sandy Hook massacre, gun shops selling the same Bushmaster rifle Adam Lanza used to slaughter children saw long lines out their doors, as gun enthusiasts rushed to buy the weapon, ostensibly out of fear that the state would soon ban it. One would think that a sense of moral grotesqueness alone would keep a citizen of this state from standing in that line. But no.
If the wanton slaughter of five-year-olds can’t spark productive revulsion, what possibly can? Violence and violent crime in America waxes and wanes over the decades, for reasons complex enough to confound sociologists and criminologists. But whatever level it checks in at—relatively high or relatively low—it will continue to be worsened by the magnifying glass of easily available guns, until we somehow recognize this insanity for what it is. But when? And how?