“Every single year, more than 30,000 Americans have their lives cut short by guns—30,000. Suicides. Domestic violence. Gang shootouts. Accidents. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost brothers and sisters, or buried their own children. Many have had to learn to live with a disability, or learned to live without the love of their life.”
President Obama spoke movingly about the lives shattered by America’s gun violence epidemic on January 5 as he announced a series of new executive actions to reduce gun violence. These new measures will not prevent every shooting that snuffs out the lives of nearly seven children to gun violence daily; they will save many lives and help staunch the relentless plague of gun violence that terrorizes our nation’s homes, schools and communities.
The President’s executive actions clarify that for purposes of requiring background checks a person does not need to sell guns in a traditional storefront to be “engaged in the business” of selling guns. Some of those who conduct sales over the Internet or at gun shows will now be required to obtain a license and run background checks on potential purchasers or face stiff penalties. These steps, coupled with greater efficiency and effectiveness in our background check system, enforcement of existing gun laws, and new investments in mental health treatment and research into gun safety technologies, are long overdue. Legislative action to strengthen huge weaknesses in our nation’s gun laws is still required but the President’s common-sense executive actions move us in the right direction.
Several measures highlight one of the key components of our gun violence crisis: that much gun violence begins at home. So many wrongly believe that gun violence happens mostly “out on the streets” and others believe owning a gun will protect their family from gun violence. The opposite is true: A gun in the home increases the risk of homicide, suicide, and accidental death.
Guns lethalize anger, domestic disputes, mental illness and despair. A gun in the home makes the likelihood of homicide three times higher, suicide three to five times higher, and accidental death four times higher. The pro-gun lobby has created the fantasy of a gun as a homeowner’s perfect protection against a mythical intruder. In reality, each time a gun in the home injures or kills in self-defense, there are four unintentional shooting deaths or injuries, seven criminal assaults and homicides with a gun, and 11 completed or attempted gun suicides.
Suicides are the leading cause of gun deaths in America. In 2014, 21,334 adults, children and teens committed suicide with a gun compared to 10,945 gun homicides. Whites are most likely to die by gun suicide followed by American Indians and Alaska Natives. Whites were more than three times as likely as Blacks and nearly five times as likely as Hispanics to commit suicide by guns. In 2014, 929 children and teens committed suicide with a gun and 1,455 children and teens died in gun homicides.
Guns lethalize suicide attempts. Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Means Matter suicide prevention campaign explains, “Every study that has examined the issue to date has found that within the U.S., access to firearms is associated with increased suicide risk.” People who die by suicide are more likely to live in homes with guns. States with high gun ownership levels have higher suicide rates because they have more gun suicides while the non-firearm suicide rate is about equal across states. They sum it up simply: “What is it about guns? Guns are more lethal than other suicide means. They’re quick. And they’re irreversible. About 85 percent of attempts with a firearm are fatal: that’s a much higher case fatality rate than for nearly every other method.” Nine out of ten people who attempt suicide and survive do not go on to die of suicide later—but most people who use a gun for their first try do not get a second chance.
Guns can lethalize domestic violence. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence notes the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk of homicide 500 percent. CDF noted in its Amicus Brief with the American Academy of Pediatrics in the U.S. Supreme Court case U.S. v. Castleman, that even when it is not used to kill, a gun wielded by a domestic abuser increases the frequency of ongoing, nonfatal domestic abuse by increasing the abuser’s ability to control a victim; the ever-present threat of gun violence makes it more difficult for victims to leave their abusers. Children are severely impacted. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Castleman that domestic violence abusers are prohibited from possessing guns regardless of whether “violent force” is an element of the underlying offense.
In August 2015, Texas mother Valerie Jackson, her husband, and her six children, ages six through 13, were killed by a gun inside their home by her ex-partner, the oldest child’s father. The FBI defines a “mass murder” as an event in which four or more people are killed. By that definition the majority of “mass shootings” are cases of domestic violence and the majority of mass shooting victims are women and children. Valerie Jackson’s shooter was an ex-felon who had been arrested and charged for domestic violence against her in the past, and there was a warrant out for his arrest for a new charge of violence against her when he killed her and her entire family. He would not have been able to pass a background check to purchase the gun he used in the murders—but he avoided one by buying the gun online, one of the loopholes President Obama’s executive actions aim to help close.
We can do better. We must do better. President Obama said: “We know we can’t stop every act of violence, every act of evil in the world. But maybe we could try to stop one . . .” He echoes Nobel Literature Laureate Albert Camus’ words while speaking at a Dominican Monastery in 1948: “Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children.” Camus described our responsibility as human beings “if not to reduce evil, at least not to add to it” and “to refuse to consent to conditions which torture innocents.” “I continue,” he said “to struggle against this universe in which children suffer and die.” And so must every one of us in our gun saturated nation which takes the life of a child or teen every 3 hours and 28 minutes, nearly 7 every day, 48 every week, and more than 2,500 a year.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.