My last article was, at least nominally, about gun control.
It started optimistically enough; I began by stating that our country is more heavily armed than some war zones and pointing out the most recent mass shooting event. Somehow, though, in examining the statistics on gun violence, I concluded that the guns are not the real problem.
If you’re curious about that, feel free to go read that article; it’s a trip. If, on the other hand, you’re concerned directly with controlling the ownership and possession of firearms, read on here.
My earlier conclusion, that there’s something else at work in our society than the evil that is the common firearm, was predicated on cause-of-death statistics. Put simply, suicide in all its permutations far outweighs homicide as a cause of death in this country, and even straightforward, basic, “I Shoot Myself” suicide is more than twice as common as any form of “He Shot Me” homicide. Since firearms don’t cause suicide, I opted to focus on what does — despair.
But it remains inarguable that gun violence in this country, including gun suicide, is a huge percentage of causes of death. It is comparable, in fact, to the rate of death by motor vehicle accident — nearly identical, across all ages.
And so the question can be raised: Should firearm ownership and possession be restricted in order to promote public safety?
In order to examine this, let us dissect it, looking at each form of gun violence in turn. Bear in mind that I do not seek absolutes here; my burden is abstract, merely that a given proposition be arguable from either moral or ethical standpoints.
Firearm suicide is the most common form of purposeful and immediate suicide in this country. It is arguable that suicidal behavior actually accounts for a greater number of deaths; death by drug overdose or constant abuse, for example, is actually a larger number per year, and deaths due to other forms of self-destructive behavior by far outweigh firearm suicide. Nevertheless, the number of people that successfully shoot themselves to death is a large one, and it needs to be addressed.
In 2014, there were 21,334 firearm suicides; this is compared to 11,407 suicides by suffocation (mainly hanging) and 6,808 by poisoning (mainly deliberate drug overdose or pesticide consumption). Given all known forms of suicide, it is arguable that fully half employed guns to end their lives — and this doesn’t touch on the roughly 250 instances of “suicide by cop”. (In actuality, the fraction is likely a good deal less due to the societal onus against suicide as a cause of death; many suicides are deliberately misreported as accidents, especially in Catholic countries and regions. (1))
The majority of firearm suicides use handguns, both semiautomatic and revolver, as the active weapon. Simple examination will reveal the impracticability of the hunting rifle as a suicide method; short shotguns, however, are also occasionally employed – despite the difficulty in application – due to their extremely high effectiveness at the task.
Shotgun suicides differ from handgun suicides in that, as a general rule, they require a moderately higher amount of preparation and deliberation in application. The ease of use of a handgun for this purpose is a highly plausible explanation for the fact that impulse suicides using them are much more common. Given that deliberate intent is difficult to block, I would suggest that, at least for the purposes of this discussion, we should ignore the shotgun just as we would the rifle.
The argument, then, is that we as a society ought to control access to handguns in order to reduce the number of these impulse suicides. That we have the right is arguable as a matter of public safety; whether we have the obligation to do so requires further exploration.
One of the major underlying factors leading to completed suicide is mental illness. Drug abuse follows, as does stress due to a recent crisis or due to a misfortune involving a romantic partner. There are significant numbers of people who perform what is known as a “rational suicide”, determining that, whether due to the projected pain or expense of an illness or some other factor, one’s life is better ended; it is unlikely that the removal of firearms in these cases would at all impact the number. From a philosophical standpoint, it is even arguable that it is unethical for a society to attempt to prevent “rational suicides”.
Given that the majority of suicides are predicated on mental illness and drug use (often comorbid), however, it seems apparent that the root cause ought to be addressed: that mental illness should be better dealt with by us as a society. Nevertheless, in these cases, it is arguable from both moral and ethical perspectives that access to handguns should be limited by society. This is underlined by the following statistic: That some 80% of murder-suicides employ firearms.
As with suicide, the majority of firearms used in homicide are handguns. Given the methodology required to deliberately kill a person while using a rifle, it is arguable that any specific target thus chosen could, by reallocation of effort, as easily be killed by some other method; as such, for the purposes of this discussion I will again concentrate on handguns and entirely ignore shotguns and rifles.
Handguns are, by design, entirely fitted as appropriate tools for the commission of a homicide. Target pistols aside, both revolvers and semiautomatic handguns are multi-shot, highly portable, simple to use, and accurate at close range.
Homicide statistics in this country are quite rough, partially from privacy considerations but largely because reporting is not mandatory. The following conclusions that depend on this data are therefore to be considered as conditional; nevertheless, there exists a sufficient volume of data to make the more coarse assertions reliable. (Regardless, the one sure conclusion that I’ve reached in this study is that national reporting ought to be mandatory, uniform, and appropriately collated and disseminated.)
The National Violent Death Reporting System gives us access to ten years worth of cumulative data on the subject, from 2003 to 2013. During this time and in the areas reporting, a very small percentage of firearm incidents involved multiple (2+) deaths; news reports notwithstanding, mass shootings are extremely infrequent.
While approximately 10-15% involved a relationship to intimate partner violence, the majority of reported firearms homicides were predicated on another crime, whether one in process or one that had recently occurred. This includes a moderate percentage each of officer-involved shootings and self-defense.
As a result, it seems apparent that in order to address firearm homicide, it would first be wise to address the underlying problem which is violent crime. Given that a large percentage of non-firearm homicides share this correlation, it is reasonably arguable that firearms access alone does not act causally as the major factor toward violent crime. Because of this, it seems reasonable to assert that restricting access to handguns would not have a major impact on violent crime numbers or subsequent or associated homicides.
As this seems counterintuitive, I’ve sought external validation — and found it. Several studies performed by the PHLR through 2009 reinforce the assertion.(2) Violent crime statistics from other countries tend to have mixed results, but in the UK, crime rates have increased drastically since universal firearm registration took effect.(3) Given that violent crimes are almost unheard-of in some European countries, it is more than somewhat postulable that crime rates spring from a national culture or identity rather than from opportunity.
However, since a large percentage of violent crime is practiced by repeat offenders, and since a moderate number of these instances are impulse crimes, or crimes of opportunity, it is reasonable to restrict those previously convicted of violent crime from owning handguns.
Whereas common homicides usually take place during commission of another crime, mass shootings differ in that they are often (though not always) actions designed for the sole purpose of killing large numbers of people. Media accounts to the contrary, mass shootings are uncommon, and reliable statistics are therefore difficult to assemble.
One commonality among most mass shootings, whether school shootings, workplace sprees, or acts of terror, is that the weapons used were almost always legally acquired. The majority of these events were meticulously planned over a moderate to long period of time, indicating a great deal of deliberation on the part of the perpetrators. Given the relative ease whereby other methods of homicide might be employed, it is certainly arguable that removing weapon access would likely not decrease the death toll appreciably; moreover, given the rarity of these attacks, it is reasonable to conclude that no action would have much impact from a statistical standpoint on homicide rates, as even the cumulative death toll is comparatively low.
I would further observe that, given the level of deliberation generally employed in these attacks, extreme and even draconic firearms restrictions would be required in order to eliminate them. Given their comparative rarity and projected lack of impact, it is reasonable therefore to conclude that any reference to mass shootings as an argument in favor of firearms control laws likely springs either from lack of information, emotional rather than reasoned argument, or in some cases perhaps even a deliberate pursuit of political agenda rather than public safety.
In any dispassionate discussion of firearm violence, it is advisable to discuss alternate methods. Suicides, we’ve seen, are at least as often from other methods than firearms; homicides, less so. Specifically discussing homicides, it is worthy of mention that penetrating or cutting injuries account for a moderate percentage, as do blunt force trauma, vehicular killing (non-accidental), and poisonings.
Granting the premise that firearm restrictions (specifically handguns) on the populace as a whole would likely restrict the average criminal similarly from firearm possession, it seems reasonable to presume that the non-casual criminal would secure alternate armament. A vast range of knives and blunt instruments are commonly available; moreover, there is no easy way to restrict access to them. For the more fastidious, poison remains readily acquirable and requires little to no specialized knowledge.
An historical curiosity worthy of mention: Shortly after the Second World War, materials restrictions were such that firearms were extremely difficult for criminals to procure. Anecdotal accounts of improvised munitions in the 1940s and 1950s, specifically the popularity of so-called “zip guns” and “bang sticks”, are fairly common, as were the weapons themselves before handguns became relatively simple to acquire.(4)
Examination of these and other factors leads to the conclusion that handgun restriction in general would logically have little to no impact on the rates of violent crime in general and homicide in specific.
From the above, it seems reasonable that some firearms control, specifically on access to handguns, is arguably desirable from a public health standpoint. In specific, it seems reasonable to suggest that handguns should not be owned by the mentally ill, by habitual drug users, and arguably by known criminals — the first two in order to reduce preventable suicides, the third in order to reduce impulse crime.
Nevertheless, I would again assert that it is far more reasonable to address the underlying causes of violence, whether suicidal or projected upon others, than to attempt to control the mechanisms whereby that violence is committed. For further thought, I offer the following articles for reference:
- NCBI at NIH – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6678086 – Note that there are several differing studies.
- There have been several studies performed; one example can be found here: http://publichealthlawresearch.org/product/gun-registration-and-licensing-requirements
For those inclined to dismiss their findings as politically motivated, it is perhaps notable that, like most organizations funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the PHLR generally evinces a liberal bias.
- A general article on the subject can be found here; the footnotes are likewise of interest.
- Statistics in this article on relative mortality rates were taken from the CDC’s website. One easy-to-use graphic may be found here; general information is accessible here, and through that page’s sublinks.