Gun Deaths and the Bigger Context

As a parent, I am both saddened and angry over the tragic gun related deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary. Any senseless death is troubling, but when kids are murdered at such a young age, it goes beyond belief and we can only look to the heavens and ask why Lord? Yet, as tragic as all of these deaths are, a greater tragedy occurs everyday in America that when added up dwarf these deaths. Due to the accessibility of guns in our country, coupled with humans who get angry, impulsive and depressive, gun related deaths occur that could have been avoided if the guns were not at hand.

In August, I wrote a post called “Another Day on America – 16-year old kills 13-year old friend.” This post was written after the Aurora and Wisconsin shootings that occurred earlier this year. This post has been getting more hits of late, as it attempts to speak to this broader context. I would encourage you to scroll back and read the earlier post as I have some statistics that might be of interest. I will cite some of them below.

I am writing this now for two reasons. First, we can no longer tolerate the number of gun deaths we have in America. We are beyond the tipping point and must act. Second, some of the ideas thrown out to remedy the Sandy Hook type massacres will actually not solve that problem and will create far greater problems down the road. We have to look at the greater context at what is happening everyday in America.

Let’s set the stage with a couple of statistics noted earlier. Per the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery and Medicine, the United States has:

– 80% of all gun related deaths when measuring deaths in the top 23 wealthiest nations;

– 87% of all gun related children deaths of these same 23 countries; and

– 14 gun related deaths per 100,000 people as compared to Mexico with 13, Canada with 4 and Great Britain with 1/2;

The comparison to Canada is very pertinent as Canadians love their guns like Americans. Yet, we have over 3x the gun related deaths that they do. There are many reasons noted in the earlier post – but Canada has better gun laws, less poverty and better access to mental health care as three of the reasons.

Quoting the NRA who likes to pontificate “guns don’t kill people – people kill people” I find this trivializes the point. The more true phrase is people who have access to guns kill people. And, generally, the converse is true – people who do not have access to guns don’t kill people. The greater context to this issue is humans are an impulsive, imperfect lot. As noted earlier, we get angry with family, friends, acquaintances, enemies and people who we perceive as treating us with disrespect. Every day in America, someone has killed another person as he or she has acted impulsively and was in close proximity to a weapon. Someone got mad in a Pizza parlor the other day, went out to his car, retrieved a gun, went back inside and killed the person who offended him.

However, it goes beyond this. In my previous job, I sometimes consulted with a Behavioral Psychologist who helped employers provide improved mental health benefits in their healthcare plans for employees. She often cited two statistics that resonated with me – 20% of people will at some point in their lives have mental health issues needing treatment. At any given time, 10% of an employer’s healthcare plan participants will be accessing mental healthcare treatment. This treatment may be as simple as being prescribed with antidepressants or it may include ongoing therapy. Her modus operandi was to get people with antidepressants prescribed by a medical doctor to also see a therapist. The meds help, but the care by a professional psycho-therapist is crucial.

With access to guns, people who have been or are subject to depression, could act on an impulse and take their own life. Or, if affronted, could possibly take the lives of others. This is a key reason letting kids have guns on college campuses is about the dumbest idea possible. You marry complex social circumstances with kids being away from home and without fully developed brains, the kids could more easily act out an impulse and their life is over.Without the gun, the suicide may be avoided. I know of one college close to where I live that has allowed guns on campus. So, the outside chance of preventing a rare Virginia Teach shooting, may lead to more gun related suicides and homicides.

So, our leaders need to focus on the bigger context. We know where the NRA stands – they want to sell more guns. Everything else said by the NRA is dwarfed by that mission. People wanting to arm everyone should be thanked for their comments and then quickly ignored as those ideas are ill-conceived. You give a teacher a gun and I can assure there will be more children deaths due to kids finding a loaded gun in the classroom. In Gun Ownership 101 it says keep loaded guns away from the kids.

At its simplest, getting a license for owning a weapon that kills, should be harder to obtain than other licenses. Gun licensing needs to have a longer waiting period and thorough background checks should occur. To do otherwise is irresponsible, end of story. If you are under psychiatric care on meds, you need to bring a note from a psychiatrist or psychologist or no gun for you. We won’t let people in the military for some mental health reasons, but they can get a gun here. And, no one in America should have an automatic assault weapon. If you do and are not in law enforcement, then I question your motivations. The Brady Law which was let to expire in 2004 will address some of these issues, if reinstated. Yet, law enforcement officers have suggested another item that will reduce guns deaths – register the sale of bullets. The police say encoded bullets will become traceable and help solve crimes, yet the NRA is against this practice. If I were a leader, I would listen to my police force who does not have a vested interest in any decision.

However, as noted above, this is only half of the story. The other half is we must encourage better access to mental health care. If you are on meds prescribed by a MD, please go see a psycho-therapist, as well. A Medical Doctor is not trained in psychiatry or psychology. Further, please take your meds. This could be said about any medicine, but people in need often stop taking their meds to save money. The Affordable Care Act will help in this regard extending healthcare coverage. Finally, referencing the 20% mental health prevalence statistic noted above, please help eliminate the stigma around mental healthcare issues. Every family has or knows someone who needs recurring mental healthcare help. Living with mental illness is something that is and can be dealt with.

Let me conclude with two final contextual points. First, poverty is rampant in America with almost 50 million people in poverty. As a result, the opportunities for gun related crime are increased in America. This issue is complex and deserves its own post, but the distance between the haves and have nots in our country is not healthy for many reasons. We have to afford opportunities to work for reasonable pay.

Second, we have a more violent culture in the US than in other countries. We have far more violence in movies and TV and we have greater access to violent video games. This prevalence of exposure to violence in entertainment is highly correlated with gun deaths. Is it causal? More than likely. To demonstrate a point for the younger readers, in the 1970’s TV crime shows rarely ended with the death of the criminal – the criminal was taken off to jail. Yet, toward the end of that decade, the trend changed where the shows concluded more and more with the good guy killing the bad guy. Now, we have video games, where your character is the bad guy killing others.

This is a complex issue and deserves concerted attention. Yet, it also requires a focus on the greater context. Who, where, why and how are the gun deaths occurring across America? As tragic as the events of Sandy Hook, Aurora, Wisconsin, and Virginia Tech are, they are dwarfed by the many gun related deaths which occur every day in America. That has to be the focus of our mission to reduce gun related deaths.

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13 thoughts on “Gun Deaths and the Bigger Context

  1. As usual, very well said. The gun problem is complex, as you state, and mental health, easy access to guns, and poverty are all contributors. The NRA’s ridiculous stand this morning is definately NOT the solution.

  2. Two things would happen if Americans were less afraid BTG.
    1. They would lose the desire to be armed to the teeth “for protection”.
    2. They would be far less controllable by those corporate and political entities that profit from the fragmentation of americans into competing groups who hate and fear each other..

    Our military recruits from the likes of the youth who cut their teeth on violent video games and received firearms for their 10th birthdays. It’s rather easy to convince kids that killing people you never met is honorable, simply because someone told you to. It’s disgusting and the antithesis of anything that can even remotely be called “Christ like”…. but, in the absence of anyone telling them any different, it’s easy. And, the absence of anyone telling them any different we have in spades.

    I’m sorry to say I have very little hope that things will change for the better. The higher the level of fear the easier the population is to control. Terror Management Theory is all but an exact science.

    • Mrs. N, very good points. The fragmentation of the market to sell based on fear is an excellent point. The NRA has made a huge amount of money pointing at Obama and saying you better buy. Then when his record showed in his first term he was one the best gun Presidents ever, they said buy now because he will come for your guns next term. Have a great holiday and best wishes in 2013. BTG

  3. I’m not sure Canadians, as a group, are completely enamoured of guns. My feeling is they are viewed here as a tool, not a personal fetish to ward off all evils.

    Any of the people I know who have guns use them for hunting and so have a couple of rifles in the .300 range (elk/moose sized critters) and, maybe, a shotgun for duck hunting. For home protection we have alarm systems and/or telephones by the bed to call 911. When it comes to crime control, we believe in calling in the professionals. After all, they’re rarely more than a couple of minutes away and thats why we pay taxes, isn’t it?

    Like you BTG, we like our police. We want to employ them and this seems like the kinda thing they’re good at. They have guns. We don’t and we like it that way.

    From my perspective the frenzy of the debate in the states revolves around the simple fact you have allowed guns to become a political issue. Once that happens polarization occurs and all reason flies out the window.

    Taking care of the sick, the elderly and the poor through social services and medicare has become some sinister plot to destroy the U.S. citizens freedom to die in pain from a preventable disease because it has been politicized. I mean, really? It takes some incredibly twisted logic and giant leaps from specious argument to faulty reasoning to find anything sinister in health care unless you put it into a political context. So a republican program becomes evil if a democrat proposes it.

    The same thing is being done to guns and gun regulation. “You can pry my gun out of my cold dead hands”…sounds like a circular argument to me.

    Take guns out of the political context and put a human face on it that the pro-gun lobbyists can’t fight. A hundred thousand mothers marching on Washington demanding an end to the sale of automatic weapons. Thousands of children, in every major city, surrounding a Federal building — any Federal Building — each carrying a picture of someone killed by a hand gun. Don’t allow any politician to come within 100 yards of these protests.

    Oh, also, please keep the Westboro church out of it. The last thing you need is to confuse this issue with politics AND religion.

    I like the encoded bullet idea. Combine it with Chris Rock’s suggestion for guns to be inexpensive but bullets cost $100 each and I think it would help.

    xxoo from Canada’s Left Coast….

    • Many thanks for the well thought out response. Your opinion is welcome anytime. Thanks for the Canadian perspective and the astute observations of your crazy brother south of your border. I agree with your assertions on how we make things political. To me, one of the greatest ironies is Obama passed a Republican healthcare idea and the opposing party makes it a horrible tragedy. Chris Rock’s idea is funny and directionally correct. The bullet encoding the police wants makes total sense. Of course, if you listened to the NRA President today, you would have walked away scratching your head as did the former leader of the Republican Party, Michael Steele. Thanks again and happy holidays, BTG

  4. As always, thoughtful and thorough. But I lean toward Mrs. Neutron: I do believe that the country is in terror-mode. And the NRA knows how to milk the situation to their advantage and the Congress doesn’t have the courage to stand up to the NRA. I wish I had one tenth of the optimism that you and Jen have. I keep reminding myself that you two are working with people on the fringe whereas I sit in a small town in Minnesota and simply read the news. I need to listen closely to what you both say. Sometimes distance gives you perspective; sometimes it keeps you out of the loop.

    • Hugh, many thanks for your comments. I agree we do have very tense country, but I do believe the good things that happen on a daily basis are very underreported. Good news gets drowned out, as it is not sensational. The biggest bias in media is toward conflict and sensationalism. They want to pit sides against each other rather than tell the real story. As we sit on this issue, the news are giving the NRA equal weight on an issue where they have a biased interest in the outcome. The real news story is the NRA is doing a disservice to the respectable gun owners by pointing fingers at every one else. If the NRA is not coming to the table with reasonable dialogue, then they do not deserve a place at the table. Thanks for your comments. Happy holidays, BTG

      • Hugh, I was watching PBS Newshour tonight and one of their reporters – Fred de Sam Lazaro – is working in partnership with one of your Minnesota colleges – St. Mary’s on a global project called “Under-Told Stories Project.” The one tonight focused on a missionary who is helping build a Haitian community by listening to what the homeless Haitians need. This is right out of the book “Toxic Charity” in how to help – listen to what they need. I found it ironic that they are using the phrase “under-told” since I mentioned the undereporting of good stories a few hours before. Good work by Minnesota. Take care, BTG

  5. Great post, BTG. As you say, there are many factors contributing to the culture of violence in the US. The NRA’s “solution” is completely asinine. Even Rupert Murdoch and several prominent Republicans are aghast at LaPierre’s disastrous press conference. The assault weapons ban should definitely be renewed and encoded bullets sound like a great idea to me. I am skeptical that our leaders have the wherewithal to actually make a difference, despite this latest tragedy. The gun lobby has very deep pockets and paranoia runs deep. Sales of semi-automatic weapons have skyrocketed since Sandy Hook. Seems people do tend to cling to their guns in times like these.

    • Thanks Amaya. I saw the gun and ammo sales figures. Wow. Well, the time to act is now, so they better take advantage of the opportunity or more kids and teens will be in harms way. If the NRA cannot come to the table with reasonable ideas, then they do not deserve a place at the table. Take care and happy holidays, BTG

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