The term “gun death” has proven to be one of the anti-gun movement’s most effective inventions.
No one disputes the frequency of deaths resulting from gunshot wounds. But by describing these tragedies as “gun deaths,” anti-gun lobbies can shift the focus away from the person who pulls the trigger and towards the inanimate object that fires the projectile. The term implies that guns themselves shoulder the responsibility rather than the individuals who use them.
More significantly, “gun death” and “gun violence” allow anti-gunners to conflate the weapon and the user, the individual criminal, and the firearms industry. It blurs the distinction between personal responsibility and the availability of guns in America, giving those who would destroy our Second Amendment rights the opportunity to pursue disarmament under the guise of being “tough on crime.”
But perhaps the most important function of “gun death” is its ability to blur the distinction between homicides and suicides.
Here’s a great example. Hillary Clinton’s gun control platform begins,
While gun ownership is part of the fabric of many law-abiding communities, too many families in America have suffered from gun violence. About 33,000 Americans are killed by guns each year. That is unacceptable. It is a rebuke to this nation we love.
What she doesn’t tell her supporters is that 60% of this “gun violence” is attributable to suicide. The Center for Disease control noted in their 2009 National Vital Statistics report that 59.8% of firearm injury deaths in 2009 were suicide. The PEW Research Center confirmed these numbers in 2010.
But we don’t need to resort to third-party or government sources to verify the 60% mark. One of the largest anti-gun advocacy groups in the country—the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence—admits what Hillary fails to mention. The Brady Campaign notes as one of their “key gun violence statistics” that of the 32,514 people who die from “gun violence” every year, 19,992 people kill themselves.
Hillary Clinton is by no means the only one to take advantage of the ambiguity of the 33,000 “gun death” stat. Slate follows suite in this article. You can read it in The Atlantic here. The Huffington Post and Bloomberg.com say the same. It’s a shock statistic, often cited at the beginning of articles and not always clarified at the end. If you’re trying to promote gun control, 33,000 gun deaths is a much more impressive number than the 8,874 murders committed with firearms in 2010 or the roughly 11,500 homicides perpetrated with firearms in 2009.
Suicides, of course, are no less tragic than homicides, and highlighting the above statistics is not meant to downplay the horrific nature of these deaths. Individuals who kill themselves with firearms and the families who must cope with the aftermath face excruciating pain, sorrow, and heartbreak. Suicide is especially prevalent among veterans, an appalling fact considering the risk our vets take to protect the freedoms we enjoy.
But suicides are different from homicides, and the strategies used to reduce the former are different from the strategies used to reduce the latter. This distinction sounds obvious enough, but anti-gunners don’t appear to get it. Anti-gun bloggers, journalists, and activists, it seems, are content to parrot their unhelpful pet statistic as long as it leads to more gun control. They don’t understand that if we want to reduce the number of Americans killed with guns each year, we have to be rigorous and specific. We cannot conflate homicides and suicides and expect one-size-fits-all solutions to have any effect.
Fortunately, while the anti-gun industry is busy blaming guns for “gun deaths,” members of the pro-Second Amendment community are pursuing real solutions to lower the number of firearm-related suicides.
Alan Gottlieb, Founder and Executive Vice President of the Second Amendment Foundation, appeared on “Gun Talk Radio” with Tom Gresham recently to discuss Washington State’s House Bill 2793, also known as the “Suicide Awareness and Prevention Education for Safer Homes Act.” According to Gottlieb, the bill brings together members of the firearms and pharmaceutical industries to develop “an educational program for firearms retailers and gun ranges, so we can help identify people that might be at risk of suicide and try to keep lethal means out of their hands.”
“Most of us [in the firearm industry] are experts about guns, but we’re not experts about mental health,” Gottlieb continued. “None of us really know what to look for or the warning signs of people who might commit suicide.” Using a combination of public and private funds, the bill is designed “to help prevent suicide via education, not gun control.”
Washington’s suicide rate is fourteen percent higher than the national average and, according to HB 2793, “one of the most immediate ways to reduce the tragedy of suicide is through suicide awareness and prevention education coupled with safe storage of lethal means commonly used in suicides.”
The bill does just that. While it accomplishes a number of objectives, its primary purpose is to form a task force administered and staffed by the University Of Washington School Of Social Work. This task force will be assigned to develop suicide awareness videos and other educational materials for gun stores and ranges to use on a voluntary basis.
The bill also calls for a “suicide prevention and firearms subcommittee,” which will be comprised of (among other members) one representative from the National Rifle Association, one from the Second Amendment Foundation, and two from the firearms industry. The subcommittee will report to the larger task force and advise on best practices and procedures.
This legislation gives the pro-Second Amendment community a central role in reducing the number of firearm-related suicides in Washington without restricting the constitutional rights of Washington citizens.
“Suicide prevention is not, and should never be, about gun control, but about saving lives and preventing tragedies,” Gottlieb said in a Second Amendment Foundation press release. “Working with State Rep. Tina Orwall and a bipartisan group of lawmakers, along with Brian Judy at the National Rifle Association demonstrates that people with diverse interests can come together and produce something that I think will be good for the citizens of Washington State.”
While the gun industry cannot be held responsible for the actions of individual citizens, it is uniquely positioned to contribute to the reduction of suicides in the United States. Guns, after all, are one of the easiest and most lethal means of committing suicide. In 2010, firearms were used in over half of the 38,364 suicide deaths, and they’re lethal in roughly 85 percent of attempts. These realities, of course, do not call for a restriction on gun rights. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression, substance use, anxiety, and psychosis are the major contributing factors to suicide. Banning guns will not end suicide, but educating gun owners and dealers on warning signs and proper gun storage could reduce the frequency of guns being used in suicide attempts.
It should also be noted that gun-related suicide is, in many ways, an in-house issue. As Tom Gresham observed in the “Gun Talk” segment referenced above, those who commit suicide with guns are generally gun owners themselves. Anti-gunners, by definition, do not own guns. If the gun community wants to remain healthy and growing, it has an obligation to address the issues facing its members. Washington’s Suicide Awareness and Prevention Education for Safer Homes Act is a great step in the right direction, and hopefully other states will enact legislation along similar lines.
Finally, Washington’s House Bill 2793 protects Second Amendment rights from those who would use tragedies like suicide to destroy the gun community in America. Gottlieb described the bill as an “important project… for the future” because it gives anti-gunners less ammunition in the fight for gun rights. As he explained on Gun Talk,
“What’s important to gun owners in this—aside from the fact that it’s the right thing to do—is that… the majority of homicides in this country are really suicides, and the anti-gunners love to use the homicide statics to beat us over the head. In Washington State, eighty percent of gun deaths are actually suicide, so if we can lower those numbers, it takes the… arguments away from the anti-gunners when they’re trying to push legislation aiming for our gun rights.”
The pro-gun community in the United States is uniquely positioned to reduce the suicide rate in America, it has an obligation to help protect its members, and reducing the number of suicides will help protect gun rights. These are all important reasons to pursue legislation like HB 2793, but they pale in comparison to the most important reason of all: to prevent the needless loss of human life.
If we want to reduce the number of gun-related deaths in America, we should start with suicide. But that won’t happen if we continue to use ambiguous terminology like “gun deaths,” and it won’t happen by implementing more gun control. Suicide reduction begins with education and resources like those HB 2793 puts in place, and it ends with members of a community caring enough to implement those resources to save the people who need them most.