The Thinker

Gunsmoke

In my next life, perhaps I will be a sociologist. Unlike philosophers who deal largely in the hypothetical, sociologists dwell in the here and now. Rather than look at life as it might be, they examine life as it actually is and try to understand its hidden catalysts. Sadly, the press tends to largely ignore their research.

Thankfully, we readers of The Washington Post are blessed with a weekly glimpse into the world of sociology, thanks to Washington Post reporter Shankar Vedantam. Every Monday, I turn the front page and there is Vedantam’s interesting sociology article of the week on page A-2. Today’s article deals with the bias many of us have toward people with baby faces. For some reason humans have a strong predisposition to trust these people more than others. It is too bad Richard Nixon was not born with a baby face. He might have gotten away with Watergate. (Karl Rove has a baby face. This might explain his luck to date.)

Two weeks ago, Vedantam reported on the work of sociologists Colin Loftin and David McDowall of University of Albany. They studied the homicide statistics in Washington D.C. between the years 1968 and 1987. Gun control did not begin in Washington D.C. until 1976, so the researchers had nine years of statistics before gun control and nine years after gun control.

One finding will cheer gun proponents: despite arguably the nation’s strictest gun control law, the law had no effect in reducing homicides in the city compared with statistics in neighboring Maryland and Virginia. (My suspicion is that this is because guns are so easy to acquire simply by stepping across the D.C. line.) However, the law did have one surprising effect: it cut the rate of suicides in the District by 25%. The neighboring states of Maryland and Virginia, which had no gun bans, recorded no similar reduction in their suicide rates during those years.

In short, owning a gun increases by 200 to 1000 percent the risk that you or someone in your household will use it to kill themselves. It appears that having such an expeditious way of killing yourself dramatically raises the likelihood that you will kill yourself. However, if you do not own a gun you are more likely to ride them out rather then follow through on our impulse.

If I had a gun, would I use it to kill myself? I just cannot see myself ever doing something like that. Nevertheless, the statistics are compelling. Having the ready means (a gun), raises the likelihood that I might. You cannot argue with the statistics. Until I read this article, that possibility had never occurred to me. It did occur to me that if I owned one, some member of my family might use its convenient location and ready lethality to kill herself.

I might rethink my decision to not own a gun if I lived in the Trinidad section of Northeast D.C. In the space of ninety minutes last Saturday, seven people were shot and one was knifed. One of those shot subsequently died. After all, if most of my neighbors were packing heat, I probably would feel the need for a little protection too. While that seems entirely rational, the number of people who actually use a gun to protect their lives and property are relatively small. In fact, many of the people who are the biggest advocates of gun rights live in generally safe communities. The likelihood that their guns will ever be used for self-defense is so remote as to be astronomical. Within Washington D.C., packing heat appears to provide only the illusion of self-defense. In fact, there is no correlation I could find between whether you own a gun and whether it actually improves your ability to defend yourself. This does not surprise me. Guns have the attribute of being both fast and lethal. I hope that I could pull a gun out of my pocket quickly enough, but most likely, the assailant would have shot me before I had the opportunity.

Consequently, if you want to reduce the likelihood of being a victim of gun violence your action plan is clear: move to neighborhoods where you are statistically less likely to be a victim of gun violence. Spend those five hundred dollars on a U-Haul instead of a gun.

If I owned a gun, it would constantly prey on my mind, the same way a stick of dynamite would if I kept one in the basement. The difference is that owning dynamite is illegal, and owning a gun is not. I would like to believe that I would never use a gun to kill myself, but who knows? I might get depressed, or lose my job, or have other major crises thrown at me at a vulnerable moment. I would like to think that no one in my family would kill themselves with a gun either. However, I cannot read their minds. Perhaps during a blue period they would elect to do so. The statistics are clear: having a gun available can make someone up to ten times more likely to commit suicide.

The article points out that last year there were 51,175 homicides nationwide. Of these, 32,637 of them were suicides. Of these suicides, 52 percent were a result of someone shooting himself or herself with a gun. Therefore, while gun control laws appear to have no effect by themselves in reducing the overall homicide rate, the D.C. study suggest they do dramatically reduce the number of suicides. Isn’t this by itself a compelling enough reason for gun control laws? Are we not a country that at least claims above all it wants to inculcate respect for life? Whose life is more important than our own?

Therefore, just as I know that wearing a seat belt improves the odds that I will survive a car crash, I also can now confidently state that by not owning a gun I may be saving my own life. If you value the your life and the life of anyone in your household, you should not own a gun.

 

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