Looking down the wrong end of a telescope gives you an entirely mistaken perspective on the universe. The Los Angeles Daily News allowed Tim Rutten to publish an opinion piece (The dangerous illusion of Americans and their guns, May 30, 2014) that displayed just such an inverted perspective on the topic of the social utility of guns in American society.
Rutten correctly noted that nearly two thirds of all gun deaths are suicides. But Rutten’s political bias inverted the cause and effect perspective. Rutten claimed that “a Californian who purchases a gun is four times more likely to take his own life [with a gun] over the next year as someone who does not.” Nevermind that if you buy a gun to kill yourself you are probably going to use it to do just that. The reality is that suicidal people find a way, whether a gun is available or not. America and Canada share many cultural similarities and have nearly identical suicide rates, but suicidal Canadians – who own fewer guns than Yanks – choose to swallow poison instead. Lithuanians have less than 1% of the guns per capita than Americans do, but Lithuanians kill themselves three times as often, typically by hanging. So while some depressed people buy a gun as their specific choice of suicide method, for others the presence of a gun simply gives them a first choice. But the absence of a gun just makes them choose a different mode. Guns are not the cause of suicides. The trigger does not pull the finger.
Gun control laws don’t prevent suicides either. Suicides are typically committed using legally acquired handguns, like the ones most gun owners keep in their bedside night stands. “Assault weapons” or extra-capacity magazines are not required, nor are they common in suicides.
No law, including any gun law, will stop someone bent on self-destruction. But the fact that suicides do constitute the overwhelming bulk of all gun deaths in America is significant because, while tragic, suicide is an entirely different problem than gun accidents or the illegal misuse of firearms to commit crimes like homicide. The rate and treatment of mental health issues among suicidal people should drive this discussion, not the method of committing the act.
Rutten also noteed that the criminal misuse of firearms accounts for the second largest number of gun misuse (after suicides); 35% of gun deaths. Nearly two thirds of mass public homicides are committed by people with documented histories of mental illness. But again Rutten gets things backwards. He claims that “The ubiquity of guns in our society also fuels the real crime crisis.”