Our Deep Divide Over Guns

A couple weeks ago, Adam Gopnik claimed that “the majority of Americans agree that there should be limits and controls on the manufacture and sale and ownership of weapons intended only to kill en masse.” Lisa Miller disagrees:

Americans are perhaps more divided on the issue of guns than they’ve ever been. In 2014, just 47 percent — less than half — of Americans said that gun laws should be “more strict,” according to Gallup, down from 58 percent after the Newtown shootings and 78 percent in 1990, the year James Pough killed ten people, most of them at a General Motors office, with a semi-automatic rifle.

Forty-two percent of Americans have a gun in their home, a percentage that has fluctuated by about 10 percentage points over the past generation but is not so far from the proportion that owned guns in 1960: 49 percent. Yes, according to a year-old Rasmussen poll, 59 percent of Americans favor a ban on semi-automatic weapons, like the one Adam Lanza used in Sandy Hook. At the same time, 70 percent of people say they’d feel safer living in a neighborhood where owning a gun was allowed. “The majority is there,” writes Gopnik, but nearly every shred of evidence points the other way: Despite what would seem to be its obvious benefits, a majority on gun control has thus far been impossible to muster, even in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting. …

To frame the gun debate, as Gopnik does, as sane versus insane, with gun-control advocates, such as himself, as those “who actually want to reduce the number of gun massacres” and pro-gun forces as both (his language) dishonest and unscrupulous “prefer[ring] an attachment to lethal symbols of power” is to misunderstand the issue — or to miscast it to support his fictional notion of a consensus of right-thinking people like himself.

And nowhere are the murky, volatile, and heartbreaking conflicts within the gun debate laid bare more than in Newtown. I spent a good deal of time there in 2013, reporting a story about the aftereffects of the shooting, and was surprised to find so much sensitivity — and so much disagreement — around the subject of guns. There was no consensus. The town priest, ostensibly a strong moral voice in town, shied from articulating a principled allegiance to one side or the other. Even in a place where 20 children had died at the hands of a madman with a gun, the most basic questions of how to prevent a reoccurrence hit the rawest of nerves. No one wanted to say where they stood for fear of offending a neighbor who might feel another way. On the question of assault rifles, “I don’t want to demonize anyone,” said a parent whose child was in the school that day and lived. He had become an activist for stronger gun laws, but he lives in town, and his pro-gun friends were as devastated by the events of December 14, 2012 as he was.

Update from a reader:

The Beltway consensus seems to be that meaningful gun control is no longer possible in the U.S. But there is lots of room for change that can protect lives. Here in WA state, we passed Initiative 594 in Nov., that closes the gun show and online sales loophole. We had hundreds of passionate volunteers working on this initiative, and backing by deep pockets both here and outside the state, people like Bill Gates and Nick Hanauer. Now we are mobilized to pursue additional legislation to keep guns away from the mentally ill, hold parents responsible when their underage kids use guns in crimes, and inform people when confiscated guns are returned to those they had filed restraining orders against. There is pride that we beat the NRA at their own game, and this is now a state-by-state battle.

The Gender Divide In Suicide

Jesse Bering ponders one explanation for why men take their lives more than women do:

It’s mostly because they’re far more likely to use a gun to do the job.

In any given year, men account for about 80 percent of all suicides, and the lion’s share of those deaths are gun-related. Not all involve your standard handgun, either. There’s the occasional suicide by the more cumbersome or exotic firearm, too, such as a double-barreled shotgun, an Uzi, or an assault rifle. But you tend to find such “long gun” deaths only among younger men, and almost never in women. Most people who commit suicide were never keen on making Swiss cheese out of folks with automatic weapons, so they probably used a smaller, discreet firearm for their ego’s coup de grâce—one that they’d acquired originally “for protection” against all those other crazy people out there. These statistics on basic handguns being the most common type of firearm used for suicide also make sense from a simple agility perspective. After all, although teen suicides get the most press, it’s in fact the elderly male demographic, the age group with the sort of arthritic joints and Parkinson’s trembles that make handling a military-grade weapon a challenge, which accounts for the highest suicide rate. The same is true for all the setup and effort needed to hang oneself properly, the second deadliest suicide method.

In America, where the chances of finding a gun in the home (the place where, incidentally, most suicides occur) are about as good as finding a carton of milk in the fridge, there’s no better predictor of suicide than simply having access to a firearm. In one study, 25 percent of California residents who bought a gun killed themselves with that same gun within a year of the purchase. And although women aren’t as likely to go out and buy a handgun, when they do, they’re more likely to turn it on themselves; for the ladies subset of those new California gun owners, for instance, over half of these women used it to commit suicide in a matter of months.

Update: a number of readers have written in contesting a particular claim in Bering’s post:

Jesse Bering’s Scientific American post needs correcting, on the claim that “25 percent of California residents who bought a gun killed themselves with that same gun within a year of the purchase.” The NEJM article he linked to says 25% of deaths among that group in the following year were suicides: “Suicide by means of a firearm (188 of 857 deaths) ranked second among all causes of death.” The article analyzed “the 238,292 purchasers of handguns in California in 1991,” so in fact the correct number in Bering’s original claim would be 0.08%, not 25% (188/238,292).

Another adds:

The paper also isn’t persuasive in furthering the idea that having a gun made suicide more likely through it being present, while it’s not hard to think that having the means at hand might facilitate someone if they got an impulsive urge to commit suicide. However, the more plausible explanation for the statistical increase is that people who already wanted to kill themselves got a handgun, if not specifically for that purpose, then at least to provide them the option.

Problems like this typically emerge when studies are conducted seeking to show a causal relationship between guns and something – and devaluing the effects of human agency. It is easy to believe that some things are affected by the mere presence of a gun – accidents for certain, rash and impulsive acts, perhaps. But in many cases the gun is simply part of a thought-out trajectory toward another end.