By Rebecca Solnit
The gunman who a week ago killed 18 people in Lewiston, Maine, finished his bloodbath by shooting himself. Like many mass shootings, his rampage appears to have been a suicide that took others with him. Mass shootings draw deserved media attention, but they are a small percentage of all gun deaths in the US; suicide is the most common way people die by gun. That is, if you own or have access to a gun, the person you’re most likely to kill is yourself. Fifty-four per cent of US gun deaths are suicides, which means access to a gun is a major risk factor for dying this way.
This fact, often cited but rarely examined, means the gun industry is pushing guns the same way the tobacco industry pushed cigarettes: their intentions toward their customers are blithely murderous. It also undermines the advertisements and arguments claiming that guns provide safety and protection. Of the 48,117 reported gun deaths in the US in 2022, 26,993 were suicides – a stunning number, a gun death every 11 minutes, the equivalent to a mid-sized town being wiped out annually.
Gun sales went up in Maine after the mass shooting and the two days the public feared a killer on the loose. The desire for protection is understandable but guns rarely provide it. Cases in which guns really are used to protect against harm are far, far, far rarer than the gun lobby and the macho fantasies of skillful gun use fed by films and video games suggest. Guns are rarely actually used in such situations, and when used, are seldom as effective as the fantasies suggest (and sometimes kill bystanders or are used against the gun owner). Even police, who are trained in marksmanship, mostly miss their intended targets in conflicts. The publication the Trace, noting that 16 million Americans who own AR-15 assault rifles say they are for self-defense, was able to find only 51 verified cases of owners using them in self-defense over an almost 10-year period.
Eighty-one per cent of AR-15 owners are male; 74% are white. There’s a kind of nightmarish illogic to the fact that people buy guns for protection when the people they are most likely to turn the guns on are themselves. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, “the evidence indicates that the risk of suicide is three times as high when there is firearm access as when there is not”. White men, who make up less than a third of the US population, make up more than two-thirds of suicides by guns, and run higher risks of suicide overall. As the Washington Post recently put it, “White men are six times as likely to die by suicide as other Americans.”
This is in part because white men own guns at higher rates than any other demographic. (Other factors, including social isolation and the masculine ideal of self-reliance, also matter.) An attempt to take your own life is usually born of desperation, by those who feel they have no other exit from an unbearable situation or state of mind. If these attempts are last, desperate pleas for help or change, death is not necessarily the real or only goal, and not dying is not failure. But with a gun, survival is much less likely. Addressing the underlying crises of despair and isolation matters for both suicide and homicides, including mass shootings; so does making guns far less available to those likely to use them to take lives.
If the left were pushing guns, you could imagine the right arguing that it’s a conspiracy against white men. But of course it’s the right that has built a cult around guns, the right that has pushed for lax gun laws, the right that has sought to make guns available to domestic abuse perpetrators, mentally ill people and people under 21 – such as the mass shooter who last year murdered 18 children and teachers in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, with an AR-15-style rifle purchased the day after his 18th birthday.
While the frontier rhetoric of protecting women is often invoked, male gun owners can and do turn these weapons on female partners and former partners at horrific rates. Half of all female murder victims are killed by intimate partners or family members, and most of these are gun deaths.
There are, of course, a lot of other people who die of gun violence and accidents. The gun industry’s monumental success in peddling their lethal products has well-known consequences: a Johns Hopkins School of Public Health study notes: “Guns remained the leading cause of death for children and teens in 2022. The rate of gun deaths among this group climbed 87% in the last decade (2013-2022).” The same Johns Hopkins study notes: “From 2019 to 2021, the gun suicide rate increased 10% while the non-gun suicide rate decreased by 8%,” meaning guns themselves were a major factor in who died by their own hand.
These deaths should be included in the national conversation about what kinds of threats guns pose and to whom. To do so would be to recognize that guns make us less, not more, safe – including from ourselves.
Author Is A The Guardian US columnist, Source: The Guardian.