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By Tyler Gabrielski
July 19, 2013


“We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis,” said President Obama in a recent written statement in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman. Extensive media coverage and charged political battles over “stand your ground” cases like the one involving the death of teenaged Trayvon Martin and mass shootings from Tucson to Newtown have loomed large in the national debate over firearm laws, but as the President alluded to, many Americans are killed by guns every day in less sensational incidents, falling victim instead to gang violence, street crime, or even their own weapons.

Many suppose that the best way to defend against gun violence is to buy their own guns. But when a gun is brought into a household, it introduces significant risk. If a gun owner cannot act responsibly and ensure that the weapon is only used when it is absolutely required, the result is often deadly.

Children aged 5 to 14 in the United States are 11 times more likely to die from an accidental gunshot wound than children in other developed countries. This is a figure that should give us pause. In one April week alone, ThinkProgress noted four different people reportedly shot by toddlers. One of the victims, 6-year-old Brandon Holt of New Jersey, died from his injuries on April 9 after a neighborhood friend shot him with a .22 caliber rifle. The police later found that four of the father’s shotguns were accessible to his four children and were located near open ammunition.

If the father of Brandon’s friend had locked his guns in a safe, it’s likely that Brandon could still be alive. Unfortunately, an unsettling 43 percent of homes with guns and kids have at least one unlocked firearm. Such carelessness is not only dangerous to other family members, but also to the children themselves. In an experiment by the American Academy of Pediatrics, a full third of 8 to 12-year-old boys who found a hidden handgun pulled the trigger, either because they thought the gun was a toy or didn’t care if it was.

While searching for chewing gum in his great-grandfather’s room on May 29, Trenton Mathis, a 2-year-old Texas boy, found instead a loaded 9mm semiautomatic. With that gun, he accidentally shot and killed himself.

It’s also uncomfortable to acknowledge the risk that having a weapon on hand presents to those who may use it on themselves. In 2010, the number of gun suicides was nearly twice as high as the number of gun homicides, and many of those suicides were young people who used a family gun. In April, 13-year-old Nigel Hardy, plagued with adolescent depression and anxiety, stole his father’s unsecured handgun from their home and fatally shot himself in the head.

Some gun owners can ignore the threat their weapons pose to children, and many own guns specifically to protect themselves or their families from violent intruders. Even with the risks, gun ownership advocates say, it’s worth it to have easy access to a gun in your home for protection. Owners fear that restricted access to gun purchases would leave them vulnerable to attack. In their arguments, they often point to the claim that there are 2.5 million “defensive gun uses” per year in the United States.

But that number is pulled from a single study, which is now two decades old. This datedness is unsurprising: The NRA and other pro-gun groups exert considerable pressure to prevent government institutes like the Center for Disease Control and the National Institute of Health from further researching gun use and safety.

Furthermore, that 2.5 million figure does not represent the number of lives saved. Rather, researched asked respondents: “Within the past five years, have you or another member of your household used a gun, even if it was not fired, for self-protection or for protection of property?” Within the methodology, an answer of “yes” did not mean the respondent actually fired the gun—perhaps they took it with them downstairs to check on a suspicious noise. In fact, the FBI counted an average of 213 justified firearm homicides per year over the period 2005-2010. So if that 2.5 million number stayed at that level during that span, it would mean that producing a gun in self-defense led to a fatality only 0.00852 percent of the time.

In any case, a 2011 American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine article found that fewer than 30 percent of burglaries in the United States occur when a resident is present. Though it is frequently depicted in film, criminals do not generally enter homes intending to inflict violence. Although families spend much of their time at home, only 5 percent of all violent crimes perpetrated by strangers occurs in the victim’s home.

If anything, family members face a greater risk from each other than from a potential invader when they have a gun accessible in the house. Homes with guns are a dozen times more likely to have household members or guests killed or injured by the family weapon than by an intruder’s.

Earlier this year in Houston, 47-year-old Sardar Shaikh shot and killed his 11-year-old daughter, gravely wounded his 14-year-old daughter and wife, and then killed himself. Lethal domestic assaults are nearly three times more likely in a household where a gun is present—which makes sense, given that 80 percent of all homicides in the United States are committed by a family member, a friend, or an acquaintance of the victim.

Women are particularly vulnerable: In 2010, nearly 6 times more women were shot by husbands, boyfriends, and ex-partners than were murdered by strangers. Allowing Americans who pose such a threat—like those with stalking charges—easy access to a weapon should be considered more of a hazardous liability than a comforting thought.

It’s important to remember the horrifying events that claimed so many lives in recent years. Yet, Americans also need to be reminded that although their neighbors in all demographics are dying from bullet wounds every day, statistics say that arming ourselves with more and more guns is ineffective and potentially lethal for our loved ones.

When we look for ways to protect our families, we should be trying to deescalate violence, not enable it, because the consequences of our choices could catch both our loved ones and our country in the crossfire.

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