On firearms and firearm fatalities

December 20, 2012

Author’s note: This entry was initially posted on the afternoon of Dec. 20. It was extended and re-posted later the same afternoon. Slight edits were also made to the original text. Thank you for reading! MEM

***

The 117-page report compiled by the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control provides detailed breakdowns by age, race and sex for more than 100 different causes of death in the 2009 calendar year.

The nation tallied 2,437,163 deaths that year, with a number of predictable causes leading the way. Heart disease was the top culprit, claiming nearly 600,000 people. Malignant neoplasms, or cancers, finished in second place by ending just shy of 568,000 lives. Chronic lung disease and various ailments that stop or limit blood flow to the brain respectively notched 137,353 and 128,842 deaths.

Accidents or unintentional injuries were responsible for 118,021 fatalities, ranking fifth on the list. Eight of the next 10 causes are diseases, except for suicide (No. 10, 36,909) and assault or homicide (No. 15, 16,799).

Incidentally, the government’s catch-all category, covering all but the top 15 causes of death, accounted for 469,367 deaths, or around 19.3 percent of the total.

These rather dry tables drew my interest because of the Sandy Hook Elementary School slaughter, which claimed the lives of 20 children and six staff members. They were all killed by multiple gunshot wounds, like victim No. 27, the shooter’s mother, who was slain in her own bed. (The suspect also dispatched himself with a bullet.)

This horrific event has prompted Americans to begin debating gun safety with a fervor that has perhaps never been matched. It’s resuscitated a great deal of argument over this old saw: “Guns don’t kill people, people do.”

Yet a superficial reading of government statistics indicates that guns do in fact kill.

***

More than 68 percent of all murder victims in America in 2009 were shot to death. Nearly 51 percent of all suicides were committed with firearms. This 2009 literature review (covering a variety of years and jurisdictions, mainly but not entirely American) found that guns were employed  in the vast majority of murder-suicides — anywhere from nearly three-quarters of filicide-suicides, committed by parents, to more than 97 percent of all murder-suicides.

How many gun deaths were there in 2009? A two-page table reviews injury deaths, of which there were 177,154 in all. (More than 118,000 were unintentional.) Of those, 31,347 or 17.7 percent involved firearms. More than half of these (18,735) were suicides; another 11,493 were murders.

By comparison, the government listed 39,147 deaths as drug-induced and 24,518 as alcohol-induced. Those tallies account for victims who ingested fatal doses or developed fatal conditions induced by chronic abuse. However, they exclude a number of fatalities, among them infant deaths attributed to maternal substance abuse and accidents and murders indirectly caused by the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Many readers may object that just as one shouldn’t blame the messenger for the message he or she carries, one shouldn’t blame a tool for the crime that it’s used to commit. There’s some truth to that.

And guns, of course, aren’t needed to kill. Two of the most notorious mass murders in American history were committed without firearms. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing killed 168 people, 19 of them children. The weapon in that case is described by the FBI as “a deadly cocktail of agricultural fertilizer, diesel fuel, and other chemicals.” On Sept. 11, 2001, 19 terrorists hijacked four jet planes; the ensuing crashes murdered 2,752 individuals in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania. The weapons employed were simple box cutters.

All of which speaks to the point that some proportion — perhaps an extremely high percentage — of gun-involved suicides and murders would still have occurred even if no guns were at hand.

***

It’s also worth noting that plenty of mechanisms, to employ a term of art, rival or exceed the deadliness of guns. In 2009, there were 25,562 deadly falls, representing 14.4 percent of injury deaths; nearly all were accidental. Motor-vehicle traffic accounted for 34,485 fatalities, or just shy of a fifth of injury deaths. Poisoning claimed 41,592 people, or 23.5 percent of injury deaths; more than three-quarters of these were accidental, with suicide comprising another 15 percent.

There’s one crucial difference between firearms and other deadly objects, however, entirely apart from the fact that only the former are protected by the Second Amendment.

Automobiles and airplanes move goods and people. Explosives have mining and industrial applications. Fertilizers, which are potentially poisonous as well as explosive, are widely used in agriculture. Many drugs can be therapeutic. Alcohol is widely enjoyed in social settings; other types of alcohol serve as disinfectants. Poisonous substances can be used for multiple purposes, including common household cleaning chores. Box cutters and other blades are used for myriad common commercial and household tasks.

It’s true, of course, that guns have no will of their own. They don’t act independently of people. Just like knives or screwdrivers, they are tools; just like carelessly driven automobiles and spoiled foodstuff, they can be deadly.

So what’s the one simple characteristic sets guns apart from other implements of death? It’s this: Of all the objects that can kill, guns are the only ones designed and built with the sole function of inflicting harm.

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