The terrible upside to writing about gun control is that if you fall outside the publishing window of a current event (like the Parkland, Florida shooting), just wait a while and another one will come up (like the San Bruno, California shooting). While this keeps me in paychecks and Baconators, it's also depressing.
Which is a nice segue into suicide.
Suicide is the black sheep of the American gun debate, nearly always standing outside the circle of light occupied by mass shooters, police brutality, accidental deaths involving children and intimate partner violence. When it’s discussed at all it’s under the general umbrella of mental health, but even there it’s in the backseat behind killcrazy murderpathic boogeypersons as far as media of all political bents go.
Yet, suicide by gun is a huge American problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were nearly twice the number of gun-related suicides in 2013 as there were gun-related homicides. In fact, between 2010 and 2013 the homicide number remained more or less constant while the suicide rate grew. Spree killings get the headlines, but in terms of an epidemic body count suicide involving firearms dwarfs all other gun violence combined.
There seems to be a vague hand-waving that people who kill themselves will do so whether they have guns or not. The problem with this truism is, well, it isn’t really true. Fleeting suicidal thoughts are relatively common and not always acted upon. People do elaborately plan their suicides sometimes, but brief moments in the throes of distress or mental illness are more the norm.
Having an easy, lethal means at hand to act upon that impulse increases the likelihood of a fatal suicide attempt. It’s the reason that when coal gas ovens were phased out in favor of natural gas ones in Britain in the 1960s and ‘70s suicide rates dropped and never came back up. Ease and accessibility of method matters, otherwise jumping off a bridge in the United States would be more popular. Instead, jumpers included across all the most famous suicide bridges in the country over their entire history add up to less than a tenth of the annual gun suicide total.
The presence of the gun matters, and that’s why gun control is especially important when it comes to white men. The Population Research Bureau found that white men over the age of 65 are almost three times more likely to die by their own hands as the general population. Middle aged white people, both men and women, are seeing increased mortality rates even as other groups are seeing down turns. Suicides are becoming more common, especially in men in this group, as are substance abuse problems, which a lecturer joked to me recently was “suicide on the installment plan.”
Coinciding with this rise of suicides in aging white male populations is the increase in gun buying. Men on average possess twice as many guns as women, and whites statistically outnumber all other ethnicities in America. The reasons behind both rising gun ownership and dangerous levels of despair in white men go hand in hand; economic anxiety, a feeling of lost power and agency, and fear of a country experiencing great demographical change. Guns and white men blues are making for a fatal cocktail that thousands of Americans are slamming down every year with horrific results.
White men desperately need gun control right now, and they can’t get it because the movers and shakers in the pro-gun debate have successfully overshadowed the idea of safety with oppression and disarmament. Meanwhile, gun manufacturers and pop media continue to market the gun as a virility-enhancing problem-solver, and white men in distress are eating it up.
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I propose something much more medical and holistic than your average assault weapons ban. It would be nice if buying a gun came with a little lecture on how gun ownership significantly increases a person’s likelihood of fatal suicide. Doctors with white male patients should be advising against owning a gun the same as they advise regular prostate exams, especially if the patients are habitual drinkers. Mental health professionals in particular should be encouraging white men to not own guns or to store them outside the home. I’ve personally been to half a dozen therapists in the last year, and not one of them ever asked me about weapons. If I was a new father with a backyard pool, doctors would be all over themselves telling me I need a fence. Guns? That argument is too charged to have a conversation about apparently, even when a clear statistical danger is present.
I mentioned mass shootings at the beginning of this piece. In America mass shootings are typically, but not exclusively, committed by white men. They tend to own the guns and suffer from anxieties that drive what we call massacres. The thing is, though, a lot of these spree killings end up being more like elaborate suicides. Type “shooter killed himself” into Google to check if you like, but don’t plan on being in a happy mood for the rest of the day. The idea that shooters pick gun-free zones to maximize body count is largely a myth. The fact that so many shooters eventually turn their weapons on themselves or court being shot by police implies that most are more concerned with cashing out in the act that than committing the perfect horrific crime. In that case, armed resistance becomes a factor for rather than against designating a possible killing field.
What if the hoarding of weapons prompted mental health checks? If a man fits the profile of the majority of spree killers, is it really so much of a hassle to have someone regularly contact him simply to ask if he had thought of hurting himself or others, and offer resources if the answer was yes? Could the gun owner lie? Of course, but that’s again assuming that anyone who winds up lashing out at the world or ending his life is making a conscious, rational decision instead of seeking a way out of his own mental anguish. Lawmakers are constantly saying they want to keep guns out of the hands of the criminally insane (whatever the hell that means), but I’ve yet to see anyone target gun ownership and suicidal thoughts as an issue in a big way. March for Our Lives isn’t doing it, and neither is the Republican party, the latter who you would think would definitely like to have as many older white dudes who are gun fans alive and voting as possible.
I applaud the folks marching for gun buybacks, magazine-size restrictions, empowering the ATF, and all the common-sense and thoroughly constitutional things that make up the mainstream gun debate. Stopping the next mass shooting is a worthy priority. That said, unregulated and un-monitored gun ownership is powering a fatal wave among white men in America, much of if self-inflicted but some of it deadly to those around them as well. Until we start addressing the danger of having easily-available guns of any kind in a highly at-risk population for suicide a lot more people are going to die.