[Editor’s note: During the holidays, NC Policy Watch is taking a look back at 2014 by featuring some of our top news stories and commentaries from the past 12 months. We hope you will enjoy them and feel inspired to participate in the state policy debate in 2015.]
This week, another community in America was devastated by a school shooting. Perhaps the most devastating part of the story is that a tragedy of this nature, the senseless loss of young lives, has become a regular feature in American life.
I should mention that I grew up on a farm in a rural part of the Pacific Northwest. I shot growing up, and so did many of my friends and neighbors. Because of this background, I’ve always considered myself something of a moderate on the issue of gun ownership and gun regulation. I understand why private citizens want to own guns, both the rational reasons and the irrational ones.
But the more innocent people I see lose their lives, and the more arguments I hear from radical pro-gun forces, the less sympathetic I am to unfettered firearms access. And I don’t think I’m alone.
For years, national studies have shown that homes with a firearm in them are more likely to experience a violent death. Just this year, a systematic study from Harvard University pooled results from 15 earlier investigations and reached the same conclusion: whether we’re talking about suicide, homicide or accidental death, a person with access to a gun is less safe than that same person without that access.
When I talk to my gun owner friends, they all have the same main fear: that someone will try to harm them or their family. This is an understandable fear. The studies don’t lie, though: buying a gun as insurance against this harrowing scenario just increases the risks.
Think for a moment about probability. It’s highly probable that you live your entire life without a criminal trying to enter your home to rob or harm you. If that low-probability event should happen, a host of things have to go right in order for your gun to work as a self-defense tool.
You have to be well-trained. You have to not be surprised, or asleep. You have to have quick access to your gun (which, it should be said, just increases the risks associated with owning it). You have to hope that the intruder doesn’t get to your gun and take it away from you, that you’re not outnumbered, and that any number of things don’t go wrong. Even then there’s no guarantee that confronting an intruder won’t just escalate the situation, leading to injury or death for you or those you love. A lot has to go right.
Compare that to the daily risks of owning a gun, and you see why study after study confirms what the best choice is. It’s a numbers game, and households with guns are on the wrong side of the math.
If the gamble is a bad one for an individual, just think about the costs on society. America has more than 30,000 firearms deaths every year. Yes, there are many ways to cause harm to yourself or another. But guns are swift and efficient at dealing our irrevocable consequences.
As susceptible as even the best of humans are to bad choices and impulsive decisions – to say nothing of mental illness, or drug and alcohol abuse – easy access to deadly weapons carries profound risks. One bad day, one bad moment, can end a life and send ripples of permanent consequences radiating out into dozens of surrounding lives.
The year I lived in Japan, there were 22 gun-related murders. It was a national scandal that spawned months of soul-searching editorials, trying to figure out how this happened. Since 1990, America has seen three separate incidents of gun violence – in Blacksburg, Newtown, and Killeen – that killed more people in a day than Japan’s most shameful year.
During the time it took me to write the preceding paragraphs, a total of about two hours, another news story popped up on my screen. It’s Tuesday. Two men have just been shot outside North Carolina’s Nash County Courthouse.
If circumstances were different, I’d re-work this entire piece, giving the local shooting a central place in the narrative. But here’s the thing: in a place where firearms homicides are in the dozens or hundreds, an incident like today’s is a shock, a wake-up call. In America, an event where two people get shot and aren’t killed is barely notable, and will almost certainly be gone from the headlines by the time this runs.
I want to live in a place where shootings like that actually surprise people. Don’t we all? Can’t we work to make that happen?
Jeff Shaw is the Director of Communications at the North Carolina Justice Center.