the form of death in which guns are most frequently involved. It’s not murder or acts of self-defense, which serve as the usual bookends of the argument. It’s suicide.
Even if you add all of the murders, all of the killings that take place in self-defense, and all of the accidental deaths in which guns are involved, you don’t come close to matching the number of times someone puts a gun to his head or heart and pulls the trigger.
The fact is, when guns kill, the victim is usually the gun’s owner.
This is disturbing because, when the perpetrator and the victim are the same person, slogans such as, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” become nonsensical. We’re forced to transcend simplistic notions of “good guys” and “bad guys” and enter the real and messy world of personal strife, pain, and struggle.
So often we hear that law-abiding gun owners are trained in how to use guns properly. But, what we need to know is are they trained to cope with the wounds and pain and disappointments that life inflicts and that drive people to deranged actions?
They demonstrably are not. The states that rank first, second, and third for gun ownership – Wyoming, Alaska, and Montana -- also rank first, second, and third for suicide. West Virginia, which ranks fifth in gun ownership, is only seventh for suicide, but even that rate is a quarter higher than the national average.
Of course, the risks associated with guns don’t end with suicide. There are murders, most of which are committed, not by strangers or intruders, but by family members on one another or by people with whom the victim has a close relationship. At the time they purchase guns people almost never do so with the expectation of killing themselves, a family member or a boyfriend or girlfriend. But, that’s what happens.
Simply stated, when you introduce guns into your home, you may or may not reduce the threat of being attacked or killed by an intruder – the statistics on this point are vague – but you unquestionably increase the risk of major injury and death to yourself, family members, and guests.
In a 2006 paper in the New England Journal of Medicine, doctors Matt Miller and David Hemenway showed that people living in homes with guns are twelve times more likely to suffer violent injury or death from that weapon than they are from the actions of an intruder. Moreover, men in the states with the highest rates of gun ownership are four times more likely to commit suicide with a gun than their counterparts in the states with the lowest rates of gun ownership. And women in high-ownership states are eight times more likely than their counterparts to kill themselves with guns. The added risk extends to children as well.
That’s why some of us look askance at claims that gun ownership is an effective method of self-protection.
And it’s not as though the carnage of suicide and domestic violence can be fobbed off on the entertainment industry, which has become the NRA’s latest scapegoat as it tries to deflect attention from guns. While video games and movies glamorize depersonalized violence and mass killing, the same is not true of suicide, which is almost never depicted, or domestic violence, which, even when depicted, is rarely glamorized.
It’s simply the case that the suddenness and near certainty with which guns work make them perfect tools for impulsive acts of suicide and murder.
But, there’s some good news. Nationally rates of firearm-related crime have dropped over the past twenty years, as have rates of gun ownership, which is down to less than a third of American households.
Unfortunately, this has not been true in West Virginia where gun ownership remains over 50%. West Virginia used to be the safest state in the nation, but is no longer. Over the last fifteen years, as the nation’s murder rate has dropped by a third, West Virginia’s has risen by 14%. As a result we now rank 24th, tied with New Jersey and ahead of New York. And, for every murder in West Virginia, there are more than three suicides, which puts us way ahead of both New York and New Jersey in total deaths by firearm.
We also spread the plague. On a per capita basis, West Virginia exports more guns that are used in crimes than any other state.
Still, the NRA and others who oppose virtually all efforts to control guns fall back on the second amendment guarantee of the right to bear arms – a right that they argue is necessary so that an armed citizenry can dissuade or defeat would-be tyrants who would seize the government.
But, no right is absolute. And our democracy’s bulwarks against tyranny are the Constitution’s guarantees of basic rights and the voice in government bestowed on all citizens. Against those noble guarantees, quaint notions of tyrannical government take-overs being repulsed by armed citizen insurrectionists are trivial and come at the price of 19,000 suicides a year, a murder rate three times that of Canada and four times that of the UK, and, of course, Columbine, Aurora, and worst of all, Sandy Hook.
It’s too high a price to pay.