(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its annual tabulation of firearm deaths earlier this month. Among other attributes, it amounts to a data-rich refutation of gun-lobby propaganda.
Almost 40,000 Americans were killed by gunshot in 2018, roughly the same number as in 2017. Of those, 13,958 resulted from homicide, and a whopping 24,432 from suicide. Other deaths were unintentional, undetermined or related to law enforcement or war.
The state-by-state data basically cluster similar states together. One group — let’s call them “NRA states” — features minimal regulations on firearms. These are states such as Mississippi, Alabama, Wyoming, Missouri and Louisiana. Another group of states — let’s call them “blue” — features high levels of firearm regulation. These include states such as Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Hawaii, New York and New Jersey.
According to the National Rifle Association, citizens in blue states are helpless victims, deprived of their ability to defend themselves against criminals and madmen by power-hungry politicians. Citizens of NRA states, by contrast, are safe and secure, protected by an arsenal of firearms.
In reality, of course, the NRA states listed above rank first through fifth in per-capita firearm fatalities. All five receive an “F” grade on the quality of their gun laws from the Giffords Law Center.
The blue states listed above are the five with the lowest rates of firearm fatalities. Each receives a grade of at least “B+” on its gun laws from Giffords. It turns out that basing public policy on gun-lobby propaganda just might get you killed.
The data also offer another round of sobering statistics on suicide by gun. While the number of overall gun deaths are roughly the same as in the prior year, the share of those deaths attributed to suicide rose. Again.
“Suicides by all means — firearm or other — have been rising for nearly two decades,” said Daniel Webster, director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University, in an email. “Young and old and in between have all been affected. Social isolation, economic hardship, alcohol and drug abuse, and cultural factors all play a role. Access to firearms has been a well-studied risk factor and there is a solid body of evidence linking firearm access and increased suicide risk. Effects are strong and consistent.”
Webster cautions, however, that the research doesn’t provide comprehensive answers.
What I haven’t seen in any recent study is an examination of the role access to firearms is playing in recent suicide trends. Firearm access is a tricky thing to measure. Background checks for firearm sales soared during the Obama years, but it is believed that much of that increase involved current gun owners stocking up with more guns and ammo. There’s no evidence that going from 5 to 10 guns in your house increases your risk of suicide.
Data from the General Social Survey suggest that the prevalence of guns in households has been relatively flat over the past decade. My sense is that places where firearm ownership is relatively high have experienced increased rates of suicide, though it’s not clear that this is due to increased exposure to guns. The isolation and economic struggles, losing loved ones to the opioid epidemic makes folks vulnerable and access to firearms increased the likelihood that they will kill themselves.
Firearms now kill more Americans than automobile accidents. In December, Congress approved $25 million to study gun safety. It’s not a lot of money, given the scale of death and injury. But after years in which there was an effective ban on federal funds for gun research, it’s a start.
Because blue states and NRA states have moved in opposite directions on gun policy in recent years, the potential to draw clear distinctions about policy effects is also increasing. The CDC data is precisely the sort of information that can help make America safer — provided policies are reality-based.
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Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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