USA > Gun violence
Illustration: Nicole Xu
Sharp Increase In Gun Suicides Signals Growing Public Health
July 26, 2018 5:00 AM ET
A family photo showing the author's son Galen,
who was later killed in a shooting at college,
and his sister Wendy,
who committed suicide using a gun shortly
after this photo was taken.
Photograph: Damon Winter/The New York Times
A Gun Killed My Son.
So Why Do I Want to Own One?
While fighting for stricter gun laws,
I was always told I didn’t understand.
Maybe now I do.
June 1, 2019
guns and suicide
Great Gun Gag
The New York Times
By TIMOTHY EGAN
television, you can talk about the sordid details of your sex life, the depth of
your religious piety or your belief that an organization that no longer exists,
Acorn, stole the 2012 presidential election -- a fantasy held by half of
Republicans. You can call climate change a hoax, you can say the moon landing
never happened, you can even praise Alex Rodriguez, though you shouldn't.
But you cannot talk about the 300 million or more guns circulating in private
hands in the United States. The most armed society in the world, ranked first
among 179 nations in the rate of gun ownership, had 9,146 gun homicides in 2009.
The same year, Canada had 173. But don't bring that up.
In Florida, it was against the law -- until the law was blocked by a federal
judge last summer -- for hospital doctors to even ask about firearms ownership
of victims, even though gunshot wounds account for 1 in 25 emergency room
Conservatives complain about anti-free-speech vigilantes who keep incendiary
voices of the right from being heard on college campuses, and they have a valid
point. But some of these same First Amendment defenders are the first to smother
any talk about the American weapons culture. The gun gag rules.
The latest public figure to face the shame shower is Bob Costas, the sports
broadcaster who occasionally steps outside the chalk lines of the games he
covers. Last Sunday, a day in late autumn devoted as usual to the lucrative
violence of professional football, Costas spoke about a more tragic kind of
violence. In passing on the words of a local writer, he wondered whether the
Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher and his girlfriend might still be
alive had guns not been so readily available. Belcher, who kept a handgun on the
kitchen table and an assault rifle in the den, shot Kasandra Perkins, the mother
of their infant child, and then himself last weekend.
Costas made his brief remarks at halftime of the Sunday night game. Within
minutes, the censors went after him. Top Republicans called for his resignation.
Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin, who are to reasoned argument what salt is to
a slug, condemned him. And Herman Cain, the pizza guy who at one point led the
Republican presidential primary field in the polls, passed on this tweet:
"Excuse me, Bob Costas, but you are an idiot, so shut up."
Those last two words pretty much define the current climate regarding debate
about guns and violence. In this country, it is the issue that dare not speak
Costas said later he had nothing against the Second Amendment. But our gun
culture more often than not leads to tragedy, he noted. In this, he was stating
a fact, not an opinion. "Give me one example of an athlete -- and I know it's
happened in society -- but give me one example of a professional athlete who by
virtue of having a gun took a dangerous situation and turned it around for the
better," he said.
My sentiments are with Costas. I've lost friends and family members to gun
violence. Still, I have nothing against people exercising their Second Amendment
rights. Adults can have all the guns they want, but please -- they should
understand that their arsenal makes them less safe.
People with guns in the home are at a far greater risk of dying of homicide than
those without, the American Journal of Epidemiology reported in 2004. For men,
the likelihood of death by suicide is much higher if a gun is nearby. And 90
percent of suicide attempts by gun are successful; for willful drug overdoses,
the rate is only 2 percent.
Understandably, people buy guns for self-defense. But a gun in the home is 12
times more likely to result in the death of a household member, or a visitor,
than an intruder, a 2010 study by the official journal of the Southern Medical
For all those grim numbers, the United States is not the most violent society.
Drug oligarchies and broken tribal nations are much more lethal places to live.
But among the 23 wealthiest countries, the United States is easily the
bloodiest: homicide gun rates are 19.5 times higher here than in any other
high-income country, Politifact reported.
Going into a theater or a mall in America can be a risky thing, as recent mass
shootings have shown. I just returned from Idaho, where people are buying guns
at a record clip because of the delusional fear that President Obama is going to
take them away. The safest place in Idaho, by far, is just inside the security
line at the Boise airport, where a big sign warns people that they will soon be
entering a mandatory gun-free zone.
How these basic truths came to be treated as unmentionables is a tribute to the
gun lobby's power to strangle debate on even simple safety questions. At the
same time, they have all but shut down public health research into gun violence.
For the politicians and pundits who do the gun industry's bidding, the First
Amendment does not apply to the Second Amendment. It took a sportscaster,
accustomed to parsing the nuances of a stunt blitz, to break the code of
The Great Gun Gag,
The Human Cost
of the Second Amendment
September 26, 2012
The New York Times
A Gathering of Opinion From Around the Web
By THERESA BROWN
Wisconsin, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Columbine. We all know these
place names and what happened there. By the time this column appears, there may
well be a new locale to add to the list. Such is the state of enabled and
murderous mayhem in the United States.
With the hope of presenting the issue of guns in America in a novel way, I'm
going to look at it from an unusual vantage point: the eyes of a nurse. By that
I mean looking at guns in America in terms of the suffering they cause, because
to really understand the human cost of guns in the United States we need to
focus on gun-related pain and death.
Every day 80 Americans die from gunshots and an additional 120 are wounded,
according to a 2006 article in The Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.
Those 80 Americans left their homes in the morning and went to work, or to
school, or to a movie, or for a walk in their own neighborhood, and never
returned. Whether they were dead on arrival or died later on in the hospital, 80
people's normal day ended on a slab in the morgue, and there's nothing any of us
can do to get those people back.
In a way that few others do, I became aware early on that nurses deal with death
on a daily basis. The first unretouched dead bodies I ever saw were the two
cadavers we studied in anatomy lab. One man, one woman, both donated their
bodies for dissection, and I learned amazing things from them: the sponginess of
lung tissue, the surprising lightness of a human heart, the fabulous intricacy
of veins, arteries, tendons and nerves that keep all of us moving and alive.
I also learned something I thought I already knew: death is scary. I expected my
focus in the lab to be on acquiring knowledge, and it was, but my feelings about
these cadavers intruded also. I had nightmares. The sound of bones being sawed
and snapped was excruciating the day our teaching assistant broke the ribs of
one of them to extract a heart. Some days the smell was so overwhelming I wanted
to run from the lab. Death is the only part of life that is really final, and I
learned about the awesomeness of finality during my 12 weeks with those two very
Of course, in hospitals, death and suffering are what nurses and doctors
struggle against. Our job is to restore people to health and wholeness, or at
the very least, to keep them alive. That's an obvious aim on the oncology floor
where I work, but nowhere is the medical goal of maintaining life more
immediately urgent than in trauma centers and intensive-care units. In those
wards, patients often arrive teetering on the border between life and death, and
the medical teams that receive them have fleeting moments in which to act.
The focus on preserving life and alleviating suffering, so evident in the
hospital, contrasts strikingly with its stubborn disregard when applied to lives
ended by Americans lawfully armed as if going into combat. The deaths from guns
are as disturbing, and as final, as the cadavers I studied in anatomy lab, but
the talk we hear from the gun lobby is about freedom and rights, not life and
Gun advocates say that guns don't kill people, people kill people. The truth,
though, is that people with guns kill people, often very efficiently, as we saw
so clearly and so often this summer. And while there can be no argument that the
right to bear arms is written into the Constitution, we cannot keep pretending
that this right is somehow without limit, even as we place reasonable limits on
arguably more valuable rights like the freedom of speech and due process.
No one argues that it should be legal to shout "fire" in a crowded theater; we
accept this limit on our right to speak freely because of its obvious real-world
consequences. Likewise, we need to stop talking about gun rights in America as
if they have no wrenching real-world effects when every day 80 Americans, their
friends, families and loved ones, learn they obviously and tragically do.
Many victims never stand a chance against a dangerously armed assailant, and
there's scant evidence that being armed themselves would help. Those bodies skip
the hospital and go straight to the morgue. The lucky ones, the survivors - the
120 wounded per day - get hustled to trauma centers and then intensive care
units to, if possible, be healed. Many of them never fully recover.
A trauma nurse I know told me she always looked at people's shoes when they lay
on gurneys in the emergency department. It struck her that life had still been
normal when that patient put them on in the morning. Whether they laced up
Nikes, pulled on snow boots or slid feet into stiletto heels, the shoes became a
relic of the ordinariness of the patient's life, before it turned savage.
So I have a request for proponents of unlimited access to guns. Spend some time
in a trauma center and see the victims of gun violence - the lucky survivors -
as they come in bloody and terrified. Understand that our country's blind
embrace of gun rights made this violent tableau possible, and that it's playing
out each day in hospitals and morgues all over the country.
Before leaving, make sure to look at the patients' shoes. Remember that at the
start of the day, before being attacked by a person with a gun, that patient
lying on a stretcher writhing helplessly in pain was still whole.
Theresa Brown is an oncology nurse and the author of
"Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces Death, Life,
and Everything in
The Human Cost of the Second Amendment,
The New York Times
ease of downloading a song, anyone with a computer and a credit card can order
thousands of bullets and shotgun shells on the Internet, along with tear-gas
canisters and speed loaders. They can get the same high-capacity ammunition
clips that infantry soldiers use. They can even get bulletproof vests and SWAT
helmets. All without fear of a single background check.
No one is paying attention to whether buyers have criminal histories or
mental-health records. No one is monitoring bulk sales of ammunition to see who
might be building an arsenal. Even after a young man in Colorado buys 6,000
rounds by mail order and uses them to commit mass murder, it is the rare
politician who proposes to make the tools of terror slightly harder to obtain.
When he was campaigning for office in 2008, Barack Obama vowed to reinstate the
assault weapons ban that had expired in 2004. That would have prohibited the
AR-15 rifle used in the Colorado theater shooting on Friday, along with the
large 100-round magazine attached to it. But as president, Mr. Obama has made no
attempt to do so. Mitt Romney banned assault weapons as governor of
Massachusetts and undoubtedly saved many lives, but now he opposes all gun
control measures. He never repeats what he said in 2004 when he signed the ban:
“Deadly assault weapons have no place in Massachusetts,” he said. “They are
instruments of destruction with the sole purpose of hunting down and killing
Both men fear the power of gun ideologues, particularly in swing states like
Pennsylvania, Nevada and North Carolina, where many voters have fallen under the
spell of a gun lobby that considers any restriction an unthinkable assault on
the Constitution. Senator Ron Johnson, the Tea Party favorite from Wisconsin,
spoke for the Republican Party (and many Democrats) when he said that limiting
high-capacity magazines would infringe on a basic right. “When you try and do
it, you restrict our freedom,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Freedom to do what, precisely? To fire off 100 rounds without reloading? A few
sport shooters may enjoy doing that on a firing range, but that’s hardly
sufficient reason to empower someone else to do it in a movie theater. It has
nothing to do with the basic right of home protection and self-defense found by
the Supreme Court in 2008.
A Democratic senator, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, is one of the few
officials courageous enough to propose a better idea: A ban on clips that hold
more than 10 bullets, which are not needed to hunt, practice or protect oneself.
He first proposed this last year, after a gunman in Tucson used a 33-round
magazine to shoot 18 people, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords,
killing six. The shooter was tackled when he had to reload.
The ban went nowhere and will undoubtedly be laughed off by gun advocates this
year, too. In 1993, they killed a proposal by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of
New York to impose a heavy tax on handgun ammunition, especially the bullets
that expand and cause heavy tissue damage. A few years ago, Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger of California signed a law requiring identification to buy
handgun ammunition and forbidding mail-order sales. A group of gun sellers sued
and won a trial-court ruling that the law was too vague. (The state attorney
general, Kamala Harris, appealed the ruling in February.)
But the gun lobby’s legal and political victories can’t obscure the facts. The
assault weapons ban didn’t clearly reduce crime, the best study of the measure
found, but allowing high-capacity magazines would “result in more shots fired,
more persons hit, and more wounds inflicted per victim than do attacks with
other firearms.” Sensible restrictions on ammunition and clips won’t eliminate
mass shootings; they may make them less likely and reduce their level of
Many politicians of both parties know this. To overcome their fear of the gun
lobby, they need only look at the faces of the victims in Aurora, Colo.
Silencing the Guns
The New York Times
By DREW WESTEN
Gabrielle Giffords tendered her resignation from the House of Representatives to
Speaker John Boehner because she did not feel she could continue to serve at her
current level of disability, the entire House erupted in a rare moment of
bipartisan unity, supporting their brave colleague who had survived a bullet
through the brain at point-blank range.
That was not, however, the first bipartisan moment related to the attack on
Gabby Giffords, nor would it be the last. In 2004, Congress let the assault
weapons ban Bill Clinton had passed “sunset” despite overwhelming public
support. That law limited the number of rounds of ammunition a shooter could
fire before having to reload, and letting it die an untimely death allowed a
mentally ill young man in Tucson to purchase a handgun with a 33-round magazine.
Had the assault weapons ban remained in place, he may well have been able to
shoot the congresswoman, but he would not have been able to empty his clip,
killing 6 people and wounding 13 others, before being tackled to the ground.
That moment was followed by another bipartisan moment, when President Obama
delivered a moving speech on Jan. 12 at the scene of the carnage in Tucson. In
it, the president called on the nation to mourn not only the shooting of a
beloved member of Congress but the lives of the people who died at the hands of
Giffords’ assailant, including a 9-year-old girl and a federal judge. But on
neither that national day of mourning nor on any day since has the president or
the members of Congress, who are either too frightened or too corrupted by the
National Rifle Association, honored Giffords or the memory of those who died in
that massacre in Tucson in the most appropriate way: with a return to common
sense, like reestablishing the assault weapons ban that might have saved their
lives. Later in January, Representative Carolyn McCarthy and Senator Frank
Lautenberg proposed legislation to outlaw high-capacity magazines; it has gone
The first President Bush, unlike his swaggering son (who advocated the demise of
a ban on assault weapons whose sole purpose is to hunt humans) showed political
courage by publicly quitting the N.R.A. in disgust in 1995 when it began
advocating ideas like its contention that citizens need military-style assault
weapons to protect themselves against our own government (members, for example,
of the National Guard). In colorful but paranoid language, it called law
enforcement officers “jack-booted government thugs,” prompting the elder Bush to
condemn the group for its disrespect for the law and those who defend it. Since
then, it has successfully advocated for increasingly radical laws. One of them,
of course, is Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which discourages de-escalation
of potential firefights in public with predictable results, like the shooting
death in Sanford, Fla., of Trayvon Martin.
Between the Giffords massacre and Martin’s death, we have seen more shootings
and more bipartisan moments. Around the anniversary of the Tucson massacre that
cut short the congressional career of an extraordinary woman — a woman I had
come to know personally and adore in her five years in Congress — came two more
mass killings. One occurred in Chardon High School in a small town in Ohio, as a
17-year-old opened fire on students with a Ruger .22-caliber semiautomatic with
a capacity of 10 rounds. Fortunately the alleged shooter, T.J. Lane, didn’t have
access to a gun with more firepower. About two weeks later, a man entered one of
the nation’s premiere medical centers, at the University of Pittsburgh, with two
semiautomatic handguns, and opened fire.
And in yet another show of bipartisanship, political leaders on both sides of
the aisle put on their silencers. If an assassination attempt on one of their
own did not move members of Congress to ask whether the N.R.A. has a little too
much sway in their chambers, a few dead and wounded teenagers, medical patients,
and their family members were not going to unlock their safeties. Most have
clearly made the risk assessment that they have more to fear from the N.R.A.
than they do from an occasional sniper. In the 2010 election cycle, the N.R.A.
spent over $7 million in independent expenditure campaigns for and against
specific candidates, and it has a remarkable record of success at taking out
candidates and elected officials with the misfortune of being caught in its
Over a million Americans have lost their lives to gunfire since that awful
spring of 1968 when both Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were killed
by assassins’ bullets. Last year alone guns killed or wounded another 100,000
Americans; roughly 30,000 of them died. Had that occurred elsewhere, we
would call it genocide. We don’t know exactly how many have been killed in the
fighting in Libya, Egypt and Syria, but our elected officials have had far less
trouble calling for the ouster of Middle Eastern leaders than the leadership of
the N.R.A. But it’s not just money that prevents common-sense action on gun
violence in America. Millions of Americans hunt, and a third of all households
in the United States own a gun. Guns were part of the frontier culture that
shaped the American psyche, and hunting has passed from generation to generation
in much of America. As a son of the South, I could give an intruder a run for
his money (although, like most people, I would do better to rely first on our
security service and the loud alarm a break-in sets off), and I put on my
thickest Southern accent and tease my soon-to-be teenage daughter that I’ll be
out on the front porch “cleaning my shotgun” when her first date arrives at the
In so many cases, it’s a failure of our leaders — Republicans, who prey on the
fears of their constituents and don’t even bother anymore to hide the puppet
strings pulled by large corporations, and Democrats, who too frequently forget
that humans are supposed to be vertebrates (and hence to have a spine) — to
speak to Americans’ ambivalence about guns. Over the years in my capacity as a
strategic messaging consultant, I’ve tested a range of messages on guns, and the
messages that resonate with hunters and gun owners sound like this: “If you need
an M-16 to hunt deer, you shouldn’t be anywhere near a damned gun,” or “If
you’re hunting with an AK-47, you’re not bringing that meat home for dinner.”
The first things responsible hunters teach are never to point a gun anywhere but
up or down unless you mean to shoot, and where the safety is.
It’s no wonder that Democrats have backed off of even talking about guns since
Clinton signed the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban into law nearly two
decades ago. The last thing you want to be armed with as an advocate of common
sense are phrases like “gun control,” which makes a government-wary public and
law-abiding gun-owners uneasy — and susceptible to tendentious “slippery slope”
arguments about how “they want to take away your guns.” In contrast, everyone
but the lunatic fringe in America supports gun safety laws — such as eliminating
the gun-show loophole that allows the sale of military-grade weapons without
background checks, and has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans
as well as Mexicans, whose drug cartels find the loophole extremely helpful.
Democrats could steel their spines if they could find the point of intersection
between law-abiding gun owners and law-abiding citizens who may or may not own a
gun but want to keep their families safe. In national testing, we’ve found that
a simple, non-equivocating statement focusing on that point of intersection —
law-abiding — beats the toughest “they want to take away your guns” message we
can fire at it. It leads every demographic group other than those who stockpile
weapons to support common-sense gun safety laws. Offered a message that speaks
to their ambivalence, people readily recognize that a 33-round clip makes it
virtually impossible to tackle a shooter until he has had time to kill 15 or 16
people. They understand that allowing people to purchase military-style weapons
at gun shows without a background check renders gun safety laws meaningless. And
they find it incomprehensible that we have laws on the books that tie the hands
of law enforcement officials trying to track down where a gun was bought and
sold, and that we keep such sloppy records that criminals, people with a history
of commitment for care for serious mental illness, and people with active
restraining orders on them can slip by background checks even where they’re
Beginning with a statement of principle both makes clear the speaker’s intent
and inoculates against all the slippery-slope arguments used by the N.R.A. and
the elected officials in its employ or fearful of its power: “My view on guns
reflects one simple principle: that our gun laws should guarantee the rights and
freedoms of all law-abiding Americans. That’s why I stand with the majority who
believe in the right of law-abiding citizens to own guns to hunt or protect
their families. And that’s why I stand with the majority who believe they have
the right to send their kids to school and see them return home safely at
night.” Versions of a message containing that principle win by over a 2:1 margin
with independents, and they win in every region of the country, including in my
own backyard, in the red clay of Georgia.
This shouldn’t be an issue of left or right. Grocery stores in Tucson, where
Gabby Giffords was shot (and where my mother-in-law shops — she just happened to
be out of town that Saturday), are not hotbeds of “socialism.” I don’t know the
party affiliations of the fallen teenagers in Chardon or the staff members,
patients or families in Pittsburgh, but I suspect they ranged across the
Guns don’t kill people. Silence does.
Drew Westen is
a professor of psychology at Emory University
and the author
of “The Political Brain:
The Role of
Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.”
Silencing the Guns,
How Many Deaths Are Enough?
January 17, 2011
The New York Times
By BOB HERBERT
On April 22, 2008, almost exactly one year after 32 students and faculty
members were slain in the massacre at Virginia Tech, the dealer who had sold one
of the weapons used by the gunman delivered a public lecture on the school’s
campus. His point: that people at Virginia Tech should be allowed to carry
concealed weapons on campus.
Eric Thompson, owner of the online firearms store that sold a .22-caliber
semiautomatic handgun to the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, did not think that his
appearance at Virginia Tech was disrespectful or that his position was extreme.
He felt so strongly that college students should be allowed to be armed while
engaged in their campus activities that he offered discounts to any students who
wanted to buy guns from him.
Thompson spun the discounts as altruistic. He told ABCNews.com, “This offers
students and people who might not have otherwise been able to afford a weapon to
purchase one at a hefty discount and at a significant expense to myself.”
The sale to Cho was not Thompson’s only unfortunate link to a mass killer. His
firm sold a pair of 9-millimeter Glock magazines and a holster to Steven
Kazmierczak, a 27-year-old graduate student in DeKalb, Ill., who, on the
afternoon of Feb. 14, 2008, went heavily armed into an auditorium-type lecture
hall at Northern Illinois University. Kazmierczak walked onto the stage in front
of a crowd of students and opened fire. He killed five people and wounded 18
others before killing himself.
We’ve allowed the extremists to carry the day when it comes to guns in the
United States, and it’s the dead and the wounded and their families who have had
to pay the awful price. The idea of having large numbers of college students
packing heat in their classrooms and at their parties and sporting events, or at
the local pub or frat house or gymnasium, or wherever, is too stupid for words.
Thompson did not get a warm welcome at Virginia Tech. A spokesman for the
school, Larry Hincker, said the fact that he “would set foot on this campus” was
“terribly offensive” and “incredibly insensitive to the families of the
Just last week, a sophomore at Florida State University, Ashley Cowie, was shot
to death accidentally by a 20-year-old student who, according to authorities,
was showing off his rifle to a group of friends in an off-campus apartment
complex favored by fraternity members. A second student was shot in the wrist.
This occurred as state legislators in Florida are considering a proposal to
allow people with permits to carry concealed weapons on campuses. The National
Rifle Association thinks that’s a dandy idea.
The slaughter of college students — or anyone else — has never served as a
deterrent to the gun fetishists. They want guns on campuses, in bars and taverns
and churches, in parks and in the workplace, in cars and in the home. Ammunition
everywhere — the deadlier, the better. A couple of years ago, a state legislator
in Arizona, Karen Johnson, argued that adults needed to be able to carry guns in
all schools, from elementary on up. “I feel like our kindergartners are sitting
there like sitting ducks,” she said.
Can we get a grip?
The contention of those who would like college kids and just about everybody
else to be armed to the teeth is that the good guys can shoot back whenever the
bad guys show up to do harm. An important study published in 2009 by researchers
at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine estimated that people in
possession of a gun at the time of an assault were 4.5 times more likely to be
shot during the assault than someone in a comparable situation without a gun.
“On average,” the researchers said, “guns did not seem to protect those who
possessed them from being shot in an assault. Although successful defensive gun
uses can and do occur, the findings of this study do not support the perception
that such successes are likely.”
Approximately 100,000 shootings occur in the United States every year. The
number of people killed by guns should be enough to make our knees go weak.
Monday was a national holiday celebrating the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther
King Jr. While the gun crazies are telling us that ever more Americans need to
be walking around armed, we should keep in mind that more than a million people
have died from gun violence — in murders, accidents and suicides — since Dr.
King was shot to death in 1968.
We need fewer homicides, fewer accidental deaths and fewer suicides. That means
fewer guns. That means stricter licensing and registration, more vigorous
background checks and a ban on assault weapons. Start with that. Don’t tell me
it’s too hard to achieve. Just get started.
How Many Deaths Are
Why Not Regulate Guns
as Seriously as Toys?
January 12, 2011
The New York Times
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Jared Loughner was considered too mentally unstable to attend
community college. He was rejected by the Army. Yet buy a Glock handgun and a
33-round magazine? No problem.
To protect the public, we regulate cars and toys, medicines and mutual funds.
So, simply as a public health matter, shouldn’t we take steps to reduce the toll
from our domestic arms industry?
Look, I’m an Oregon farm boy who was given a .22 rifle for my 12th birthday. I
still shoot occasionally when visiting the family farm, and I understand one
appeal of guns: they’re fun.
It’s also true that city slickers sometimes exaggerate the risk of any one gun.
The authors of Freakonomics noted that a home with a swimming pool is
considerably more dangerous for small children than a home with a gun. They said
that 1 child drowns annually for every 11,000 residential pools, but 1 child is
shot dead for every 1 million-plus guns.
All that said, guns are far more deadly in America, not least because there are
so many of them. There are about 85 guns per 100 people in the United States,
and we are particularly awash in handguns.
(The only country I’ve seen that is more armed than America is Yemen. Near the
town of Sadah, I dropped by a gun market where I was offered grenade launchers,
machine guns, antitank mines, and even an anti-aircraft weapon. Yep, an N.R.A.
dream! No pesky regulators. Just terrorism and a minor civil war.)
Just since the killings in Tucson, another 320 or so Americans have been killed
by guns — anonymously, with barely a whisker of attention. By tomorrow it’ll be
400 deaths. Every day, about 80 people die from guns, and several times as many
Handgun sales in Arizona soared by 60 percent on Monday, according to Bloomberg
News, as buyers sought to beat any beefing up of gun laws. People also often buy
guns in hopes of being safer. But the evidence is overwhelming that firearms
actually endanger those who own them. One scholar, John Lott Jr., published a
book suggesting that more guns lead to less crime, but many studies have now
debunked that finding (although it’s also true that a boom in concealed weapons
didn’t lead to the bloodbath that liberals had forecast).
A careful article forthcoming in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine by
David Hemenway, a Harvard professor who wrote a brilliant book a few years ago
reframing the gun debate as a public health challenge, makes clear that a gun in
the home makes you much more likely to be shot — by accident, by suicide or by
The chances that a gun will be used to deter a home invasion are unbelievably
remote, and dialing 911 is more effective in reducing injury than brandishing a
weapon, the journal article says. But it adds that American children are 11
times more likely to die in a gun accident than in other developed countries,
because of the prevalence of guns.
Likewise, suicide rates are higher in states with more guns, simply because
there are more gun suicides. Other kinds of suicide rates are no higher. And
because most homicides in the home are by family members or acquaintances — not
by an intruder — the presence of a gun in the home increases the risk of a gun
murder in that home.
So what can be done? I asked Professor Hemenway how he would oversee a public
health approach to reducing gun deaths and injuries. He suggested:
• Limit gun purchases to one per month per person, to reduce gun trafficking.
And just as the government has cracked down on retailers who sell cigarettes to
minors, get tough on gun dealers who sell to traffickers.
• Push for more gun safes, and make serial numbers harder to erase.
• Improve background checks and follow Canada in requiring a 28-day waiting
period to buy a handgun. And ban oversize magazines, such as the 33-bullet
magazine allegedly used in Tucson. If the shooter had had to reload after firing
10 bullets, he might have been tackled earlier. And invest in new technologies
such as “smart guns,” which can be fired only when near a separate wristband or
after a fingerprint scan.
We can also learn from Australia, which in 1996 banned assault weapons and began
buying back 650,000 of them. The impact is controversial and has sometimes been
distorted. But the Journal of Public Health Policy notes that after the ban, the
firearm suicide rate dropped by half in Australia over the next seven years, and
the firearm homicide rate was almost halved.
Congress on Wednesday echoed with speeches honoring those shot in Tucson. That’s
great — but hollow. The best memorial would be to regulate firearms every bit as
seriously as we regulate automobiles or toys.
Why Not Regulate Guns
as Seriously as Toys?,
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