Why you have to do something about guns
This message is primarily for those living in the United States. In the US, we have an outdated Constitutional amendment that has been interpreted by many, including the courts, in a way that hampers effective legislation to address what is clearly a major problem with the proliferation and use of firearms in inappropriate ways. We are frequently reminded of this by the regular occurrence of mass killings such as the recent event in Oregon. But really, that is a small part of the problem, numerically. I lay out some of the numbers below, and address some of the arguments that regulation of guns should be absent or minimal. We have another problem as well, one that is paralleled in many other areas of policy. Special interest groups such as the National Rifle Association, through pressure and campaign financing, control much of the Congress.
Other countries have addressed their gun violence problem effectively. We can too. But in order for that to happen, this has to happen:
1) The specious arguments against gun regulation have to be called out for what they are, and ultimately, ignored.
2) Citizen pressure on our elected representatives has to be increased significantly.
3) Organized efforts against the gun industry and the gun lobby have to be supported.
Your role as a citizen is critical. There are three steps you can take. Here, I’m asking you to take one of them, the one that requires the least effort and would likely have the largest impact. First, the other two. You can learn more about the gun problem, by reading this post to the end, and reading other material. After that, don’t let the gun supporters off easy when they pull out their arguments. Tell them they are wrong, and why. I understand and respect the fact that most of you are not going to do this, but some of you may be inclined to do so, and I thank you for that. Another idea is to check your investments (like your 401k) to see if you are supporting the gun industry. If so, see if you can fix that. You can find information about that here.
The easy step you can take, and likely the most effective, is to send a note right now to your representative in Congress. I’m told (see this) that a written letter delivered by the US Post Office has a significantly larger impact when it arrives on the desk of your Congressperson than an email (or tweet or a signature on a petition), so do please spend the stamp and do that if you can. But an email is good too, and if that is all you have time for, please do it.
Write your own note, but here are a few suggestions.
Write your Senators.
You have two US Senators. Find out who they are and get their contact details here. Usually there is a form to fill out. I suggest you say something like this:
I am a voter living in your state, and you represent me in the US Senate.
Firearms have become one of the most significant sources of injury and death in the United States. Yet Congress has done little to address this problem. We have made cars and toasters safer with sensible regulation, but have not done so with firearms.
I am writing you to urge you to take action to address this problem. Also, please tell me what you have done so far and what you plan to do in the immediate future.
your name here
Write your representative in Congress
You have one representative in the US House. Find out who that is here. Send that person a note as well. An example:
I am a voter living in your district, and you represent me in the House of Representatives.
I am writing to ask what actions you have taken to reduce gun violence and deploy sensible regulations of firearms. Also, what actions do you plan to take in the near future?
Gun violence has become one of the most serious problems we face in this country, including massive numbers of youth suicide. Yet, Congress has failed to act effectively to address this problem. I urge you to to do so.
your name here
Read the rest of my post if you want more background before writing the notes. Or, just do it if you don’t feel the need to do so. Ask your friends and relatives to write their reps. Ask your Facebook friends and Twitter followers, and your buddies on Instagram and Pinterest to help out.
Gun morbidity and mortality rivals other sources
When people talk, especially in social media, about this or that alleged dangerous thing (pesticides, nuclear radiation wafting from Fukushima to California, failure to purge, vaccination) it is very rare that Godwin’s Law comes into play (the mention of the Nazis or Holocaust to eventually come up). But quite often someone will make the comparison between the deadly issue of concern and car deaths. “More people die in their cars than by eating GMO corn,” someone will say.
Indeed, we see reference to automobile deaths as a misleading rhetorical device to diminish the importance of firearm fatalities. I’ll quote from Briebart: “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) final report on death statistics for 2013 shows there were 35,369 deaths from motor vehicle accidents versus 505 deaths from the accidental discharge of firearms. That is not a typo—35,369 versus 505. Americans are 70 times more likely to die in a vehicle accident than by the accidental discharge of a firearm.”
The truth is that the average annual rate of death by firearms is currently about 32,529. About 67,000 people are injured annually by firearms in the US. So, while you were not looking, cars got safer. The annual rate of death by car has declined steadily in recent decades owing to increases safety standards, even as the rate of cars per person on the road has increased. It is about half as dangerous to ride around in a car these days than it was before aggressive implementation of safety laws, and for some groups this number has declined even more (i.e., children).
It is also true that gun related deaths and injuries have declined over time, but not by much (in recent decades) and the rates are now going back up. The reasons for the decline about 20 years ago are not entirely clear, but probably have to do with changes in crime related violent deaths. In the late 1980s and 1990s, there were major changes in the nature and character of the illegal drug trade, and major efforts to clamp down on drug production and distribution caused a significant increase in violence followed by a decrease in many communities. Murder cities (often with special names like Murderapolis for Minneapolis) emerged temporarily around that time as organized gangs changed territories and tactics. From one study:
Previous research points to several potential contributing factors including the cycling up and down of youth firearm homicides (more so than adult homicides), changes in markets for illegal drugs (particularly the crack cocaine market which swept across urban cities in the 1980s and crested about 1990), changes in juvenile arrest policies and penalties for drug-related crime in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, improved economic conditions, and an increase in community-based policing strategies and primary prevention strategies for youth, families, schools and communities
So the current situation, 67,000 injuries and over 32,000 deaths annually, being one of the major non-disease causes of morbidity and mortality in the US, especially for youth, is a mild improvement from a period of chaos a few decades ago, and the rate of injury and death is staring to climb again.
Most gun deaths are suicide (20,000 a year), followed by homicide (11,000 a year) and accident (under 600 a year). Despite the obvious importance of rampage killings such those over the last few years in Roseburg (10 dead), Charlestown (9 dead), Ila Vista (7 dead), Fort Hood II (3 dead), Washington DC (13 dead), Santa Monica (5 dead), Newtown (27 dead), Brookfield (3 dead), Minneapolis (6 dead), Oak Creek (6 dead), Aurora (12 dead), Oakalnd (7 dead), Seal Beach (8 dead), Tucson (6 dead), Manchester (8 dead), Huntsville (3 dead), Fort Hood I (13 dead), Binghamton (13 dead), most of the homicides are not random mass killings. But, since the victims of rampage killings are entirely innocent, and the killings are sudden, unexpected, shocking, and often target children, they constitute a significant part of the problem.
Anatomy of a suicide
Let’s talk about the single most important gun related problem for a moment: suicide.
Sensible gun laws can prevent thousands of gun related deaths a year. When people talk about suicide, gun owners often bring up the idea that suicide is a mental health issue, not a gun issue. Well, yes, suicide is a mental health issue, but it is abysmally incorrect to say that it is not a gun issue. Here is why.
The majority of firearms related deaths in the US are due to suicide. A recent study showed that about 20,000 people in the US die of suicide using a firearm. This is the largest single cause of firearms related death.
If a person attempts suicide by poison, their success rate is about 2.5%. Cutting and stabbing has a success rate of less than 1%. Jumping has a success rate of just under 20%.
The total amount of time from choosing to commit suicide and carrying out an attempt at doing so, on average, is incredibly short, measured in minutes. (There is obviously a large spread for this number.)
When a person attempts suicide and lives, the chances that they will attempt suicide again is very low. The rate of trying an additional attempt is about 10%. A large proportion of those who do attempt suicide change their minds and seek medical attention, or others find out what is going on and intervene, saving the person’s life.
The rate of success of suicide by firearm is about 85%. When a firearm is used there is little chance to reconsider. A large percentage of those who attempt suicide and do so with a gun probably would have gotten past this period in their lives had they used a different method. I don’t have data on this, but I suspect this is more true for younger people. Also, one could argue that people should be allowed to kill themselves. I’ve seen gun owners make this argument. However, while that may be true for some individuals, especially older ones, it is a rather cynical answer to the suicide problem and certainly does not apply to adolescence or young people.
It is probably the case that a large number of people who kill themselves with guns obtain the guns simply because they are easy to obtain. Given the short span of time between choosing to take one’s own life and carrying out such an act, it is likely that most of these guns were already in the household. It is likely that many young people who kill themselves with guns obtain a gun owned by the adults in the household, a gun that is kept unlocked with ammunition readily available, perhaps the gun already loaded.
Among those who make the strongest statements against any kind of gun regulation, based on numerous conversations I’ve had, seem to be many who prefer to keep a firearm loaded and at the ready, in a nightstand drawer or some other convenient location. In a household with younger kids, this is extraordinarily irresponsible. While it might be difficult to imagine how laws or regulations could change this extremely dangerous and selfish behavior, having such laws would allow for vigorous prosecution after the fact, and may lead to more thoughtful and safe behavior by such individuals in the long run.
But what about guns as self protection?
The most vehement and vitriolic verbiage spewed to support unfettered ownership of guns seems to come from those who live in fear of home invasions or other attacks, and feel that they require a readily available firearm to protect themselves. It is quite possible that this honestly does apply to a very small number of individuals, but that is a special case that we should find a way to handle as a society. Most people who have this view are not such special cases. Also, when one has the view that enemies can enter the home at any moment and kill you, and thus you must be protected, then one must also believe that one’s personal gun must be loaded and ready, not locked up or secured, at all times. And that is unconscionable behavior, and should not be legal.
A gun kept in your home is more likely to be used to kill or injure an innocent person in an unintentional shooting, a suicide, or by a criminal who has taken it, then to be used in effective self defense (see this. A gun can be used to intimidate an attacker, but it is not clear that this is a strategy that is more effective than other non-gun related strategies (see study below). Many call for more widespread gun ownership in order to “take down” criminals involved in random violent acts out in public spaces. But there is about one gun in the US per person, a lot of people claim to carry them around, yet these self-defense guns are almost never actually used. This is probably because criminals are non-random in their behavior, and individuals armed with legal (or illegal) firearms are rarely in just the right place at the right time. Also, when people do pull out guns and start firing them, it is not uncommon for the outcome to be something other than the bad guy being “neutralized” with no one else injured.
Claims that guns are used defensively millions times every year have been widely discredited. Using a gun in self-defense is no more likely to reduce the chance of being injured during a crime than various other forms of protective action. At least one study has found that carrying a firearm significantly increases a person’s risk of being shot in an assault; research published in the American Journal of Public Health reported that, even after adjusting for confounding factors, individuals who were in possession of a gun were about 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not in possession. (source)
A recent study looked at the use of firearms for self protection.
The data for the study come from information on personal contact crimes from the National Crime Victimization Survey for 2007 through 2011. They looked at cases where an offender intended to steal property.
Among 14,000+ cases just under 1% involved the use of a gun in self defense. When the incident was over, on average, 4.2% of the victims were injured regardless of how it went down, 4.1% were injured when a gun was used in self defense. In the case of an attempt to steal property, 55.9 percent of the time the property was taken overall, with a slight reduction to 38.5% when the victim used a gun, and if the victim used a self defense weapon other than a gun, 34.9% of the time the property was lost.
So, you can stop a robbery with a gun, a little. But any weapon at all has a similar success rate. And you have a good chance of being injured.
An interesting result of that study is from the literature review. The researchers found almost no good studies that would inform of the basic question that many assume the answer to: Can you really protect yourself with a gun? The assumption that we should have lax gun laws so one can defend oneself, with the cost of tens of thousands dead each year, is a rather bold and unfounded one. The study is a bit nuanced and complex, and the researchers admit that the data are insufficient to examine many important questions. From the conclusion:
…the data provide little evidence that using a gun in self-defense reduces injury. Slightly more than 4% of victims were injured during or after a self-defense gun use—the same percentage as were injured during or after taking all other protective actions. Some self-protective actions were associated with higher probabilities of subsequent injury. The reader must be warned, however, that the sample of those injured after using a gun (5/127) is really too small to warrant strong conclusions. The large majority of crime victims who are injured are injured before they take any action.
The evidence suggests that using a weapon in self-defense may reduce the likelihood of losing property during the commission of crime. However, it is not clear that using a gun is better or worse than using other weapons…
Having such lax laws, and a loud minority in favor of keeping those laws lax, and of course other factors, probably contribute to a sort of gun fetish among those sometimes referred to as “gun nuts.” How do you know if you are a gun nut? If you keep a loaded gun in your house, if you keep guns and ammo unlocked, if you are just a regular person with no special security requirements but have a concealed carry permit, or if you think 20,000 suicides by gun per year is not a problem related to gun regulation, then you are probably a gun nut. On occasion a gun owner sets up a trap in their home, luring burglars or home invaders known to be working in the neighborhood so they can be shot “legally.” That is of course, very rare. But if you think that is OK you are probably a gun nut. For that matter, if you think it is OK when a teenage boy, on a dare, enters a home thought to be vacant and is shot dead for it, you might be a gun nut. These are all self-justifying excuses to argue against sensible regulation of guns.
Our society as a whole pays a huge cost, greater than the costs of international or domestic terrorism, so that individuals who have this gun fetish can do more or less what they want. The benefit for this lackadaisical and protectionist view of firearms is virtually non-existent. Those who suffer from the nearly unregulated presence of so many guns are accommodating the desires of individuals who want unfettered access to toys they happen to find enjoyable, at best. At worse, our society is accommodating monsters, people who believe that carnage counted in the tens of thousands is necessary so they can be wrong about safety and wrong about security.
With our current gun laws, we are paying a very high price to support unjustified ignorance and madness.
Arthur L. Kellerman et al., Injuries and Deaths Due to Firearms in the Home, 45 J. Trauma 263, 263, 266 (1998).
Branas, Charles et al. 2009. Investigating the Link Between Gun Possession and Gun Assault, 99 Am. J. Pub. Health 2034.
Fowler, Katherine ,Linda L. Dahlberg, Tadesse Haileyesus, Joseph L. Annest. 2015. Firearm injuries in the United States. Special Issue on the Epidemiology and Prevention of Gun Violence. Volume 79.
Hemenway, David, Sara Solnick. 2014. The epidemiology of self-defense gun use: Evidence from the National Crime Victimization Surveys 2007–2011. Special Issue on the Epidemiology and Prevention of Gun Violence. Volume 79.
Hemenway, David. 2004. Private Guns. Public Health 78