People choose to own guns for several reasons: hunting, target shooting, collecting… The number one reason now is for protection.
As physicians, we too care about your protection. Our mission is to treat disease, promote quality of life, and prevent injury and death. We discuss matters of health and safety in a confidential, non-judgmental fashion. We ask about depression, domestic violence, and drugs. We make recommendations about practicing safe sex and wearing seatbelts. But some feel that physicians should not talk about guns. In fact, Florida has passed a law limiting such discussion. But guns do affect health and safety. In the United States, the number of deaths from guns continues to climb (now at roughly 33,000 per year, far more than any other developed country per capita) and is expected to surpass motor vehicle deaths for 2015. It is the second leading cause of death in children.
Death by association
Guns have been used successfully in self-defense. But the reality is that owning a gun is associated with an increased risk of family injury or death. Unintentional shootings and attempted or completed suicides far outweigh the use of guns in self-defense.
In fact, the more households that have guns within a particular state, the more gun deaths there are — even after adjusting for crime, unemployment, urbanization, alcohol, and poverty.
And what is intended to protect can be turned into a threat. In one review of unauthorized entry into homes, 1.5% of cases reported using a gun to defend themselves, but twice as many reported losing their gun to the intruder. What’s more, the majority of homicides (54%) are committed by someone known to the victim and an additional 25% were by family, mostly with guns. When there is access to guns in a household, the risk of a woman dying due to domestic violence increases fivefold.
As gun ownership has increased, so has the number of suicides. Two-thirds of gun deaths are from suicides. Yet gun owners do not have more mental health issues, depression, or suicidal thoughts than those who do not own guns. The issue is the easier access. Nobody thinks it can happen to them or their loved ones, but many suicide attempts are unexpected and made on impulse.
Harm to children
Children also use guns to commit suicide; 82% of these suicides involve guns at home, mostly stored unlocked. When children attempt suicide, 90% are successful when guns are used, as compared with 5% with other means. It is hard to prevent because young people often act impulsively and there may be no early warning signs, such as suicidal thoughts.
Children are often shot accidentally by a friend or sibling. We think we know our children — but do not underestimate the secrets they keep. One study found that parents often incorrectly believed their children had never handled their guns. One-third of the children answered otherwise.
Guns are your right and your choice. But know that though guns can protect, the odds are higher that they will hurt those they intend to save. Education and compromise can help us work toward acceptable ways to stem the rising tide of gun-related deaths. That’s why I will talk to my patients about gun safety.
What can you do?
- If you are contemplating whether to keep a gun, consider the real risks to you and your family. If there is a history of domestic violence, or if someone in the household has depression, consider removing any guns.
- If you choose to keep a gun, keep it locked away. Though this won’t eliminate all risk, locked-away guns will likely be less subject to theft and curious children. The Bureau of Justice estimates that 1.4 million guns were stolen between 2005 and 2010, mainly from household burglaries.
- If you decide to keep a gun, store it unloaded, with the key and ammunition separate. Explore more advanced technology like storage locks with keyless fingerprint scans and newer gun safety features.
- Before your child goes on a playdate, consider asking the parents if they have a gun and whether it’s stored safely. This may be hard at first. One day, it might get as easy as asking about food allergies and car seats for carpooling.
- Talk to your children about what to do if they find a gun, or if their friend wants to show them a gun. Advise them, “Don’t touch the gun, leave the area immediately, and talk to an adult.”
- Support firearm injury research so that we can better understand the problem and find solutions. The CDC firearm injury prevention research came to a halt after funding was barred for anything interpreted as promoting stricter gun laws.