Gun Violence: Homicide, Suicide or Both?

Now that Harry Reid has mentioned the possibility of a new attempt to pass gun control legislation, the gun debate will probably begin to heat up again.  And while most of the argument usually focuses on keeping guns away from people like Elliot Rodger, who display clear symptoms of mental distress, the larger issue of mental illness and guns, i.e., suicide, is usually left out of the debate. This is not only because the NRA and its allies define gun violence in strictly criminal terms (homicide, assault, etc.,) but because the number of suicides, particularly suicides involving guns, have of late been going up, while the number of gun homicides keeps going down.  And since our overall suicide rate is still within the range of many industrialized countries which have much tighter control over guns, it becomes somewhat difficult for the gun-control folks to create much traction over the issue of suicide and guns.

But while our national suicide rate is within average limits for many Western countries, the picture changes dramatically when we compare the numbers from state to state.  And the comparison is available in a remarkable data series published by the Injury Control Research Center (ICRC) at Harvard University’s School of Public Health.  The data, which covers the years 1999 to 2006, is current enough to be considered valid for any discussion about the relationship of suicide to guns, and if viewed objectively, leaves no doubt that we can’t just pretend, a la the NRA, that guns and suicide have no connection at all.  The data is strikingly ominous when we examine the data for suicides of persons under the age of 18.

suicideAccording to the ICRC, the national gun suicide rate for young people is 0.83 per 100,000.  But in the four Western states (South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho) plus Alaska that have the highest per capita gun ownership of all 50 states, the gun suicide rate ranges from 2 per 100,000 in Idaho up to 4.56 in Alaska, with the other three states in between. But while guns are a clear risk factor for suicide in these states, the disconcerting evidence is somewhat obscured by the fact that these same states have very low levels of gun homicide for the youth population, with every state except Alaska falling well below the national rate of 1.77 per 100,000.

The whole issue of guns and suicide becomes more difficult to untangle when one factors in the profile of gun ownership in those states, namely, that they have the highest per-capita gun ownership of all 50 states, the survey data for this information also borne out by rates of NICS background checks.  So while these states, from the perspective of suicide and guns are very unsafe, living in these states poses minimal risk for being the victim of intentional shootings by others, and this profile holds true not just for the youth population, but the adult population as well.

The problem with trying to unite everyone behind more effective measures to curb gun suicides is that, as opposed to gun crimes, it is assumed that most guns used in suicides are owned or were acquired legally.  And since the NRA is steadfastly opposed to any legal restrictions on law-abiding gun owners, the organization is not about to consider that suicide with a gun is another form of gun violence that, like homicides or assaults, needs to be regulated or controlled.

So I have an idea.  Let’s change the terminology and, for example, call gun suicide not an act of violence, but an act of despair – gun despair.  The gun folks can continue to promote the idea that guns are only violent when used by the ‘bad’ guys, and the public health folks can focus on dealing with mental health without riling up the NRA.  I, for one, don’t really care how we solve the issue of gun violence, just as long as we get it done.




All We Need To Solve Gun Violence Is To Fix Mental Health, Right?

The NRA will let one week go by and then they’ll issue a statement about the Elliot Rodger shootings in Santa Barbara.  Actually, they’ll issue two statements which they always have ready to go.  First they’ll say that the slaughter shows that the mental health system is ‘broken’ and needs to be ‘fixed.’  Then they’ll say that a ‘good guy’ with a gun would have stopped the ‘bad guy,’ and they’ll remind everyone that CCW is impossible to get in California so there are no ‘good guys’ walking around in Isla Vista anyway.

The truth is that neither statement is true and have never been true.  But they sound like they’re true, which gets the NRA off the hook.  They can promote gun sales all they want but also come down on the side of safety and responsibility because it’s the mental health system that needs to be fixed, right?

Last week Dr. Richard Friedman, a Professor of Psychiatry, explained that the link between mental illness and violence is tenuous at best and accounts for less than 5% of overall violence at worst. Which means that if every nut lost his guns, the 10,000+ gun homicides we endure each year would drop by a whole, big 500 or so.  Wow – talk about ending gun violence by “fixing” the mental health system.  Some fix.

free school                As for all those ‘good guys’ walking around with guns, the FBI says there are roughly 300 justifiable homicides each year, a number that hasn’t changed even with the CCW upsurge in the past year.  Yea, yea, every year armed citizens ‘prevent’ millions of crimes just by waving their guns around in the air.  I also know that Martians actually did land in Parrump.

The self-satisfied folks who really believe that ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people,’ simply refuse to accept the fact that if you pick up a gun, point it at someone else and pull the trigger, that the result is going to be very serious injuries or loss of life.  There Is no other way, including running over someone with a car, that has such a devastating effect.  The NRA gets around that problem by promoting, with an almost mystical reverence, the notion of using guns for self defense.  John Lott’s nonsense to the contrary, there is absolutely no evidence which proves that guns save more lives than they destroy.

Now don’t get me wrong.  If you’re already sending a comment about how Mike The Gun Guy is really Mike The Anti-Gun Guy, why don’t you save the HP screeners a little time and at least wait until you read this entire blog?  Because believe it or not, I’m not anti-gun.  I have said again and again that 99.9% of all gun owners are safe and responsible with their guns.  I have also said, but it bears repeating, that we should be able to figure out how to end gun violence without making lawful and careful gun owners jump through more legal hoops, including expanded background checks.

This morning I received an email from one of the largest internet gun-sellers who is dumping new, name-brand  AR-15s for under 600 bucks.  These are guns that were selling for twice that much a year ago and, as the email warned, “any sudden media attention topoliticalsituations, restrictive laws and regulations can drive prices through the roof again overnight.”

The gun industry sits on the horns of a dilemma.  They can moan and groan all they want about gun control but it’s high-profile shootings that ignite the debate which then leads to stronger sales.  The NRA claims that it’s all about safe gun ownership but let’s not make it too safe.  Because if we do, it will be more than just a couple of Tea Party politicians giving away free AR-15’s.