Gun Deaths in America: An Unending Tragedy

September 5th, 2019 by Tom Lynch

September, 1970

Let me tell you a story.

We call it “going back to the world.” Home in the USA. And I’ve arrived in one piece. For the last couple of years I’ve been running around the jungles of Vietnam. My new orders direct me to report to the Army’s Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. I know the place well. It’s where I was trained and Commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant. Then on to Airborne and Ranger schools. Now a Captain, the job is to train the next bunch of happy warriors. My wife and I settle into the house at 3660 Plantation Road in the fine city of Columbus. It’s a nice neighborhood.

A few months after moving in a new civilian worker shows up at my office in the Infantry School. His name’s Bob. He’s a GS12 research analyst and I have no idea why he’s here, but he has a disability that makes it hard for him to walk or move even moderately weighted stuff. He’s rented a house in Columbus and is trying to figure out how to move his junk in. My wife and I offer to help.

So, on a sunny Saturday morning in the deep south we get into Marilyn’s red Corvair Corsa with turbocharged engine and dual carburetors, show up at Bob’s new place, and find a UHaul truck in his driveway packed with everything he owns. We get to work toting box after box into the house and putting it all where Bob wants it to go. It’s taken us all morning, but around noon we’re done and we sit down on Bob’s new furniture to celebrate the end of Bob’s beginning. Marilyn’s never met Bob, whom I’ve charitably described as being “a little strange.”  So, being a curious person she nicely asks about his life. This goes on for a while until the big moment.

The big moment is when Bob says to Marilyn, “Wanna see my hair-trigger Colt 45s?”

It’s like an E. F. Hutton commercial. Everything stops. I freeze for a second and then say, “Bob, do you really have hair-trigger Colt 45s?” He says, “Sure do. Two of ’em. They’re pearl-handled, too. Want to see?”

He’s asking a guy who’s just finished two years dodging bullets and other bad things in a spot where serious people really wanted to kill him and his men. To say I have developed a healthy respect for any kind of gun is not giving that phrase the value it needs. Having seen up close what they can do, the accidents that can happen, actually did happen, makes me scared to death of them. I’m not scared when they’re in my hands, but in somebody else’s who probably doesn’t know what he’s doing? I’m not scared yet, though, because Bob has yet to produce the firepower, but my tension level rises like a Goddard Rocket.

I look Bob dead in the eye and say, “Bob, please don’t get the 45s. Leave em’ right where they are. Marilyn and I have to be going. Hope you like your new place.” And with that, we leave.

We get back into the red Corvair Corsa with turbocharged engine and dual carburetors and drive home. When we get to the house on Plantation Road I pay the babysitter and look at the two-year-old daughter I’m just getting to know. And I think about the pearl-handled, hair-trigger Colt 45s in Bob’s house.

September, 2019 

Back in 1970 slightly more than 50% of Americans, mostly men, owned a firearm. Since then, although the population has grown, the percentage ownership has declined to 22.4%. Nonetheless, Harvard and Northeastern University researchers conclude there are about 265 million  handguns and rifles in the country now. Three percent of gun owners, super owners, own more than 50% of all firearms in the country. For the other 97%, average ownership is three firearms, mostly handguns.

Femicide, abusive men killing their intimate partners, is five times more likely if the abuser has a handgun and lives with the victim. Research shows the number one contributing factor to femicide is unemployment. Potential femicide victims who do not live with the abuser and own a handgun are significantly less likely to be killed by their abuser.

In 70% of workplace shooting deaths, the perpetrator used a handgun. Workplace shootings have declined significantly since the 1990s, but the 70% figure still holds. In the last 50 years there have been 50 workplace mass shootings with an average death count of six per event. According to Jillian Peterson and James Densley, who study mass shootings for a project funded by the National Institute of Justice: 

The perpetrators were almost exclusively men (94 percent) with an average age of 38 (the youngest was 19, the oldest was 66). More than three-quarters (77 percent) were blue-collar workers, and 53 percent had experienced a recent or traumatic change in work status before the shooting.

A University of Washington 2017 study found that three million Americans carry a loaded handgun daily; nine million do so at least once a month.

The National Center for Health Statistics, a unit of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, annually publishes National Vital Statistics Reports. One of those reports is about how we die. In Deaths: Final Data for 2017 (most recent data collection year), we note 38,396 deaths caused by firearms. Of those deaths, 23,854 were by suicide, 14,542 by homicide. Despite comprising 12.1% of the US population, non-hispanic blacks were homicide victims in 57% of the cases. Unfortunately, all CDC can do is report the numbers? Why? Because a 1996 appropriations act contained something that has come to be known as the Dickey Amendment. That amendment is interpreted to prohibit the CDC from doing any research into gun violence. The amendment says federal funding could not be used to “advocate or promote gun control.”  Since more than 38,000 people die by gun violence per year, is it too much to ask that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spend a few million of its $5 billion budget to research and analyze gun violence. Seems a modest proposal to me.

Although there is no universally accepted definition of a mass shooting, the Congressional Research Service defines a “mass shooting” as one in which four or more people are killed, not including the shooter. Using that definition, there have been 164 such events from 1966 through August, 2019. But they are increasing in frequency and deadliness. If the definition were expanded to include the death of the shooter, the raw numbers would rise substantially. Even so, mass public shootings represent only 0.5% of all homicides by firearms annually. But they are the incidents that garner all the attention, which the mass shooter is craving in most cases. And bigger body counts mean bigger headlines. One recently thwarted shooter posted that, “A good 100 kills would be nice,” and another wanted to “break a world record.”

In mass public shootings, the weapon du jour is the assault rifle. The National Shooting Sports Foundation has estimated that approximately 5 million to 10 million AR-15 style rifles exist in the U.S. Regarding assault rifles, I know a thing or two. And I can say with complete certainty and a good deal of experiential credibility that there is not a single reason on God’s lovely earth why anyone other than police and my military brothers should have one, especially one with automatic fire capability. Anybody who tells you differently is chock full up to their eyeballs with what makes the grass grow green and tall.

Now, I would not be an unhappy guy to wake up one morning to discover that all firearms in the hands of civilians have gone *poof* in the night. We all know that will never happen. But as Peterson and Densley argue:

One step needs to be depriving potential shooters of the means to carry out their plans. Potential shooting sites can be made less accessible with visible security measures such as metal detectors and police officers. And weapons need to be better controlled, through age restrictions, permit-to-purchase licensinguniversal background checkssafe storage campaigns and red-flag laws — measures that help control firearm access for vulnerable individuals or people in crisis.

Regarding Bob and his pearl-handled, hair-trigger Colt 45s? One evening in 1975 a bullet from one of them went straight through his head. Police classified it an accident, but I didn’t buy that for one minute.