I don’t mean to be insensitive to the potential for destructive nature of a gun in the home, but there was a spate of news articles yesterday regurgitating a statistic which is neither new nor news — that more than half of firearm deaths in the U.S. are suicides. From the Associated Press:
Public-health researchers have concluded that in homes where guns are present, the likelihood that someone in the home will die from suicide or homicide is much greater.
This isn’t news, however, as for the past 25 years, 80% of the time suicide has outranked homicides and accidents as the number one handgun killer.
Why do so many people turn to a handgun when they want to end their lives?
Perhaps it’s because nothing else in this world is quite like a handgun. A handgun’s only purpose is to kill or hurt someone. So it has an allure to many people to use it for its purpose. (A knife or rope or drugs, while all potential tools of suicide, also serve many other ordinary purposes, such as cutting up celery, tying down some luggage on the car rack, and treating a headache.) Also, in the throes of depression and suicidal thinking, the easiest, most lethal option may seem like a good choice.
But research notwithstanding, the right to bear arms is guaranteed by our Constitution, which the Supreme Court upheld as a fundamental right in this country last Thursday. Whatever public health concerns public health officials might have with firearms have to be weighed and balanced against that right. (And to be clear, this right wasn’t some reactionary amendment tacked on a few decades ago. It is a core element of our history for fear of being ruled once again by a repressive government.)
Researchers argue that if less lethal means are available, then less people’s suicide attempts will end in death. You can’t argue with that reasoning.
But to make this argument on the heels of the Supreme Court decisions seems to suggest that D.C.’s ban on private ownership of handguns was to stem the tide of suicides committed by handguns. However, that was not the case for the D.C. ban in the first place — it was to curb that city’s out-of-control murder rate (earning it the nickname of “the murder capital of the U.S.”). While suicide is a tragic component of handgun ownership, this news story is simply riding the coattails of the Supreme Court decision apparently in order to increase public awareness of this 25-year concern.
I think that’s okay (sometimes you need to find a “hook” to grab people’s attention), but I also think it’s stretching the point of “news” to package this as something new or different.
One of the most important components of the article was buried at the end:
The CDC traditionally was a primary funder of research on guns and gun-related injuries, allocating more than $2.1 million a year to such projects in the mid-1990s.
But the agency cut back research on the subject after Congress in 1996 ordered that none of the CDC’s appropriations be used to promote gun control.
Vernick said the Supreme Court decision underscores the need for further study into what will happen to suicide and homicide rates in the district when the handgun ban is lifted.
Today, the CDC budgets less than $900,000 for firearm-related projects, and most of it is spent to track statistics. The agency no longer funds gun-related policy analysis.
This is the real outrage — that politics are used to drive a public health agency’s agenda. Research-driven prevention agencies like the CDC really should not be directed by the whims of ever-changing politics. They, and agencies like the NIH, should be shielded from any direct (or indirect) politics directing what studies they should or shouldn’t pursue. That’s scientists’ jobs, not politicans’.
Read the full article: More than half firearm deaths are suicides