Op-Ed: Guns, Suicide, Domestic Violence and Need for Research

Fort Lee High School graduate, formerly of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and now the president and founder of Safe School Technologies, presents the latest in a series of articles on gun laws.

Editor's Note: The following article was submitted by Robert V. Tessaro, who recently moved back to Fort Lee after spending five years in Washington, D.C., where he worked for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

What do ovens in the U.K. have to do with gun control policy in the U.S.? More than you may think.

In 1963, England embarked on a program to convert the ovens and heaters in residential homes from coal gas to cleaner natural gas. While plentiful, coal gas was less clean and released carbon monoxide fumes when it was burned. While the benefit was to reduce pollution and have a more efficient fuel system, it had an unexpected benefit. The suicide rate in England began to drop dramatically.

Up until that time, approximately half of all suicides in England were by asphyxiation from inhaling toxic gases from an oven. The term “sticking your head in the oven” was slang for killing oneself because of how common the practice was. Natural gas does not have the same toxic properties as coal gas and will not cause death if inhaled. The suicide rate in England dropped nearly 30 percent and has not risen.

The question is: how could this be? If someone is intent on killing himself or herself, wouldn’t that person find another way to do so? Quite by accident, England’s conversion to natural gas changed the way criminologists and public health experts think about crime and suicide.

Suicide, according to experts, is primarily a spontaneous act. The New England Journal of Medicine states that one-third to four-fifths of suicides are impulsive. Among people who made near-lethal suicide attempts, for example, 24 percent took less than five minutes between the decision to kill themselves and the actual attempt, and 70 percent took less than an hour. In short, suicide is often a fleeting urge based in a moment of anger or sadness. Want more proof? Nine out of 10 people who attempt suicide but survive do not die by suicide at a later date. If you take away the opportunity and the tools to commit suicide, a large percentage of people would not seek out another means.

Suicide, like crime, and particularly gun crime, is about opportunity. You need to have the means and tools to commit the act, and absent those opportunities (i.e. a firearm), a person will not seek out alternatives. On average, 32,000 Americans a year are killed by guns. Of that, 11,000 are homicides; the rest are accidental and incidents of suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 51 Americans a day commit suicide with a firearm compared to 32 a day that die from a gun homicide, accounting for more than half of all completed suicides.

In the United States, there is a correlation with states with higher gun ownership and suicide rates. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, New Jersey has the lowest suicide rate in the country. New Jersey also has the second lowest gun ownership rate. In fact, the six states with the lowest rates of overall suicide, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Hawaii, and Connecticut, have the six lowest rates of gun ownership in the country. Is firearm ownership the only factor? Of course not. Access to mental health resources and counselors are vitally important as well, but it cannot be denied that access to firearms is a factor. To put it simply, a Harvard School Public Health study concluded “U.S. residents of all ages and both sexes are more likely to die from suicide when they live in areas where more households contain firearms.”

The same can be said of violence against women. The U.S. Department of Justice has found that women are far more likely to be the victims of violent crimes committed by intimate partners when a firearm is involved. Moreover, women are much more likely to be shot and killed at home than in any other place. Polls show that 66 percent of women who own guns acquire them primarily for protection against crime, yet studies have shown that it actually increases their likelihood of being a victim of a homicide. A study in California found that a woman was three times more likely to be the victim of a homicide if there was a gun in the home. A gun greatly increases the chances of domestic violence becoming domestic homicide.

The gun in your home is more likely to be used against you or a loved one than to stop a criminal. According to the FBI, in 2010, the most recent year statistics are available, there were only 278 justifiable homicides committed by private citizens (i.e. non-police). Of those, only 34 involved a woman killing a man, and of those, only 23 involved firearms. Two-thirds of women who were killed in 2010 were shot by male intimates, not strangers, and were not related to any other crime. Most were killed during an argument when a firearm was present.

According to the Violence Prevention Center, in 2010, the states with the highest number of women murdered by males, excluding mass shootings, are Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Virginia. All of these states were given failing grades by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence's Annual Score Card of state gun laws (http://www.bradycampaign.org/stategunlaws/scorecard), with Virginia earning the highest score of the group with just 12 out of a possible 100 points. New Jersey received 72 out of 100 points, and ranked 43rd in the number of women killed by men.

There is a reason police will confiscate firearms in the home of a domestic violence incident. Passion overwhelms logic, and a firearm present can escalate a situation to deadly consequences. The shooter in the Newtown, CT massacre, likewise, would not have been able to kill as many, if any, victims if he did not have access to military style firearms and high capacity ammunition magazines.

A number of public health organizations, including the American Association of Pediatrics, take the position that firearms are a public health issue. They cite the cost of treating gunshot victims, and the huge tolls on society caused by gun deaths. The gun lobby, particularly the National Rifle Association (NRA), has pushed back on this idea. In 2011, over the objection of virtually every medical establishment in the country, they supported and successfully passed the Firearms Privacy Act in Florida, making it a crime for doctors to speak to patients about the risks associated with guns in the home. Doctors who were allowed to talk to their patients about making sure their swimming pools are secure if they have children or using child booster seats in cars, are banned from talking about securing weapons because the NRA concluded that doctors asking about guns “offend common decency.” The NRA seems to be fine with a doctor speaking to you about your sexual history but not about how to reduce the risk gun violence and accidents. Doctors risked losing their medical licenses and jail time by speaking to a patient about the risks of guns in the home. A U.S. District Court recently struck down this law, stating the obvious: that it was an attempt by the gun lobby to violate doctors’ free speech. Florida Governor Rick Scott has pledged to defend the law. Former NRA president and Florida lobbyist Marion Hammer recently said that people do not take their children to the doctor “for political dialogue or for pediatricians to ask us not to exercise a Constitutional right.”

Recently, it came to light that an NRA-pushed provision inserted into the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, prohibits doctors and other health providers from recording information about a patient owning a firearm for research purposes. This provision has found fierce opposition from the academic and public health communities, who argue that collecting data on gun violence could help save lives. 

The NRA has also successfully lobbied to prevent any federal government agency from conducting gun violence research, including the National Institute of Health. An addition to an appropriations bill prohibits the NIH from spending any money to “advocate or promote gun control.” Private organizations such as National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine recently concluded the prevalence of gun violence is a factor in the United States having a shorter life expectancy than any other wealthy nation. 

The NRA has inserted itself into more facets of our lives than most people are aware. They are preventing valuable research from being conducted on how to save lives from gun violence. They have found their way into your doctor’s office, and as previously reported, are trying to work their way into our schools. It is a slippery slope. If the NRA can dictate what your doctor can speak to you about, can snack food makers prevent doctors from speaking to you about obesity, or can the cigarette industry stop researchers from tracking lung cancer?

Repeal the ban on federal gun violence research, allow doctors to discuss firearms with their patients and encourage them to securely store their weapons and support a public health approach to gun violence. And if you own a gun, have the conversation with your family and weigh the risks and benefits. The life you save could be your own.

Also in this series:

Op-Ed: Arming Teachers Not The Answer

Op-Ed: Improving Firearm Background Checks

Op-Ed: Citizens Should ‘Fight Fiercely’ to End Gun Violence


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