ON GUN CONTROL
by Gina Guest
Many issues, including violence against women, frequently generate more emotion than reasoned response, especially among those who want to minimize or obscure the problem. And one of the tactics most often used is to imply that there are so many contradictory studies or statistics that no conclusion can be reached and all figures are equally suspect.
While the statistics I've seen agree with the commonly-made statement that the rate of accidental death caused by firearms is at an all time low, that "low" still takes the life of about 1,600 people per year and injures tens of thousands more.
It's true that more children accidentally drown in swimming pools than are accidentally killed by guns.
But while we might not "blame" the swimming pool, bathtub or lighter for an accidental death, we would certainly hold the owner and/or manufacturer responsible if their negligence or defective design were responsible for the accident. (Which raises the question of how any death or injury by a firearm can be considered "accidental" when the purpose for which the firearm is designed is to cause death or injury.)
There is nothing "superstitious or totemic" to the power we attach to a bullet -- it is designed to maim or kill and in that it differs from all other "lifeless, willess objects" other than explosive, chemical and biological weapons. Recognition of that fact is not predicated upon "personal like or dislike" any more than recognizing that the purpose of a swimming pool is recreational is predicated on whether one personally enjoys or dislikes swimming.
While there is tremendous debate about the meaning and implications of the figures about firearms deaths and injuries in the United States, there is no substantial disagreement on the numbers themselves:
- In 1995 a firearm was the weapon used in about 7 out of 10 murders in the United States. In 1994, there were 39,720 firearm-related deaths in the United States; 13,593 people were murdered with handguns; 20,540 committed suicide by using firearms; 1,610 people were killed accidentally with firearms; and the remaining 3,977 died from other firearm-related incidents including self-defense; justifiable use of force by a law enforcement officer; and homicide using a firearm other than a handgun. About 1.3 million violent crimes were reported which included the use of firearm, more than 86% of them involved a handgun.
- More U.S. teens aged 15-19 die of gunshot wounds than of all natural causes combined, and firearms are involved in 65% of all suicides among persons under the age of 25.
- An estimated 150,000 people are treated annually in U.S. hospital emergency units for nonfatal gun-related injuries and approximately 80,000 require admission for in-patient care. Cost estimates range from $1.4 billion to $4.0 billion annually in direct medical costs and $19 billion annually in indirect costs, such as lost future earnings, permanent disability, etc. An estimated 86% of gun shot victims receiving medical treatment in hospital emergency units are uninsured or insured by Medicaid, so tax payers bear most of the cost of their medical care.
- The F.B.I.'s stolen gun file contains over 2 million reports, 60% of which are reports of stolen handguns, although handguns represent only one third of all firearms privately owned in the U.S.
Opponents of gun control maintain that handguns are a major deterrent to crime and save far more law abiding citizens from death and injury at the hands of criminals than are victimized by the use of guns. Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz, claim that armed potential victims kill between 2,000 and 3,000 criminals and wound an additional 9,000 to 17,000.
Supporters of gun control maintain that the availability of handguns increases the likelihood that a crime will be committed on impulse, or while someone is intoxicated or under emotional stress as well as increasing the likelihood of death and serious injury for victims of crime. They also maintain that an assailant's use of a gun makes it less likely that the victim of an assault, robbery or rape will attempt to resist or escape.
Opponents of gun control maintain that most victims of crimes involving handguns have a criminal record or are engaged in a criminal or hazardous lifestyle and that persons who commit suicide with a handgun would commit suicide by another method if a gun was not available.
Supporters of gun control maintain that while the majority of gunshot victims are engaged in a crime or criminal lifestyle a substantial minority are truly innocent victims. They point out that in virtually all cases where a deranged gunman goes on a shooting spree the victims are both innocent and would be alive and uninjured had the shooter not had access to a gun. Moreover while they concede that some people who commit suicide with a gun would attempt to kill themselves by other means, that argue that suicides who use a gun are more likely to succeed than those who use other means and are more likely to attempt suicide impulsively in response to a single traumatic incident or sudden emotional distress.
While both sides argue vehemently over specific studies and numbers, even opponents of gun control concede that there is some evidence that having a gun in the home increases the risk of accidental gunshot injury and injury or death from being shot by a family member, although they maintain that gun control supporters greatly inflate the increased risk. They also argue that the gun owner's ability to deter or disable intruders more than compensates for the risk involved.
In summary the issue of guns in our society is a complex one that demands thoughtful dialog.
An opponent of gun control asks us to consider the case of a friend and recent co-worker living in fear because the judge issued a mutual restraining order barring her and her abusive spouse from possessing a firearm.
He points out that, "If he comes for her, and there is every chance that he will, she will have to fight a bigger, stronger, more experienced, and violent person barehanded for her life." He challenges us to, "tell her that she and her kids are in more danger from an inanimate thing than from him."
While I certainly understand this fear for her, and the frustration with a system that so often fails to protect abused women, statistically the danger to this woman and her children is increased because her abuser is likely to have easy access to a firearm and unlikely to comply with any part of the restraining order including it's prohibition against firearms.
The implication that she would be better able to defend herself if she had a gun isn't supported by the thousands of battered women I've spoken with and read about. Frequently the abusive spouse stalks and shoots them from a distance. In many other cases he appears to simply materialize and attacks so quickly that they are unable to flee or shoot. In other cases where the woman has a gun or other weapon he uses a child as a shield to prevent her from defending herself.
If she does defend herself with a gun she stands a good chance of losing her children (quite possibly to him should she merely wound him) and spending years in jail. Assuming she wounds or kills him and avoids going to jail, she is reinforcing the message he has given their children -- that violence is an acceptable way to solve one's problems. While either outcome may be better than her being killed by him I think we have to demand something more helpful and hopeful for her and her children.
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March 2002 --
Harvard Study links rates of gun ownership with young deaths
Children are much more likely to be murdered, commit suicide or die accidentally because of guns in states and regions with higher levels of household firearm ownership, according to a new study by Harvard researchers.
The study, published in The Journal of Trauma, is significant because it shows that the mere presence of firearms leads to more violent death among children aged 5 to 14, said Dr. Matthew Miller, the lead author.
''When most people buy a gun, they do so with the presumption that guns make them safer,'' Miller said in an interview. ''Our results suggest strongly that this presumption is not warranted and that the children that parents seek to protect with guns are instead being killed by guns.''
While other studies have shown links between teenage suicide and guns, this is the first national study to examine the connection between firearm ownership and violent death among younger children, said Miller, associate director of Harvard's Injury Control Research Center.
The study looked at data from all 50 states from 1988 to 1997. In that period, 6,817 children between 5 and 14 years old died from firearms: 3,447 from homicides, 1,782 from accidental shootings, and 1,588 from suicide.
The study showed that the five states with the highest gun ownership levels had many more firearm-related deaths among children than the five states with the lowest levels of gun ownership.
The two groups of states had almost the same number of children, but in the high gun-ownership states there were 253 accidental firearm deaths compared to just 15 in the low gun-ownership states.
There were 153 firearm suicides in the high gun-ownership states compared to 22 in the low-ownership states and there were 298 firearm murders in the high gun-ownership states compared to 86 in the low-ownership states.
Meanwhile, the rates of nonfirearm-related suicides and murders in the two groups of states were much closer, leading Miller to conclude the increase in deaths was attributable to the higher number of firearm-related deaths.
''The large difference in gun-related deaths compared with the low level of difference in non-firearm deaths allows us to say that guns are playing some role,'' Miller said. The difference remains even when the data is controlled for poverty, education and urbanization, the study found.
The five states with the highest rates of gun ownership are Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and West Virginia. The five with the lowest are Hawaii, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Delaware.
- This story ran on page C3 of the Boston Globe on 3/5/2002.
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