"Gun People" Making Bad Bets, and Lives are the Cost

"When I hold you in my arms and I feel my finger on your trigger, I know no one can do me no harm." - The Beatles, "Happiness is a Warm Gun"

Over the holiday break, the gun-related death of a woman in an Idaho Walmart captured the nation's attention and stirred debate about the costs/benefits of gun ownership. 29 year-old mother Veronica Rutledge had taken her son and three other children to the store that day to redeem gift cards they received for Christmas. Rutledge also had another Christmas gift with her that day--a customized purse given to her by her husband with a special pocket for her handgun. Rutledge was a concealed handgun permit holder (she obtained her permit from the state of Washington) who carried her weapon "every day" of her life.

Rutledge was in the electronics department of the store when she left her purse unattended for a minute. Her two year-old son found the weapon and accidentally shot her in the head, killing her.

The incident itself was striking, a terrible loss of precious life. But equally striking were the things said by Rutledge's family and friends in the wake of the tragedy.

It quickly became apparent that Rutledge had no clear reason for carrying the gun. "In Idaho, we don't have to worry about a lot of crime and things like that," her close friend Sheri Sandow said. Indeed, Rutledge was from Blackfoot, Idaho, a town of 11,000 with a crime rate 44 points lower than the national average. "She wasn't carrying a gun because she felt unsafe," stated Sandow. "She was carrying a gun because she was raised around guns."

Excuse me? A mother who feels perfectly safe decides it's a good idea to carry a loaded handgun when she's caring for four small children by herself simply because "she was raised around guns"? Any person who has ever cared for one child at a time knows it can be extremely challenging. Caring for four children alone? That is certain to result in constant distractions and would test even the most organized and attentive adult.

Sandow's explanation just didn't sound rational. And yet it was seconded by Rutledge's father-in-law, Terry Rutledge. Asked to explain why Veronica would possibly engage in such risky behavior, he responded, "Odd as it may sound, we are gun people."

Yes, it does sound odd, because injecting a loaded weapon into such a situation presents serious risks that dramatically outweigh any potential benefits.

From all appearances, Veronica Rutledge should have been able to comprehend those risks. This was an intelligent, accomplished individual. One of her high school classmates recalled that she was "valedictorian of our class, very motivated and the smartest person I know." Rutledge would go on to attend the University of Idaho and work as a nuclear research scientist at Battelle's Idaho National Laboratory. She published several articles on topics including the disposal of nuclear waste.

Yet she bought into gun culture whole-hog, including its most pernicious lie that "guns make you safer." On Rutledge's Facebook page, she Liked both the National Rifle Association and Guns.com, a website that recently advised readers to store handguns in their toilet bowls, linen closets, refrigerators, and front doorknobs. The purse Rutledge used, manufactured by a company calling itself Gun Tote'n Mamas, was even featured on the cover of the NRA Store catalog.

Rutledge was not alone. A survey conducted just weeks before her death by Pew Research found that 57% of Americans believe gun ownership does more to "protect people from becoming victims of crime" compared to 38% who said it does more to "put people's safety at risk."

In reality, the data has consistently shown exactly the opposite. A comprehensive review of research in this area found "the health risk of a gun in the home is greater than the benefit. There are no credible studies that indicate otherwise. The evidence is overwhelming that a gun in the home is a risk factor for completed suicide and that gun accidents are most likely to occur in homes with guns ... On the potential benefit side, there is no good evidence of a deterrent effect of firearms or that a gun in the home reduces the likelihood or severity of injury during an altercation or break-in."

Studies also show a gun in the home is associated with increased risk of homicide. One of the most-cited found that the odds of a homicide occurring in a household with a gun is almost three times greater than for a household with no gun. Another study in the Annals of Emergency Medicine found that "having a gun at home is a risk factor for adults to be shot fatally or commit suicide with a firearm." It recommended that "physicians...discuss with patients the implications of keeping guns at home." Yet another found that every time a gun injures or kills in self-defense, it is used eleven times for completed and attempted suicides, seven times in criminal assaults and homicides, and four times in unintentional shooting deaths or injuries.

There are also numerous population-level studies that examine the association between aggregate gun ownership and aggregate homicide/suicide/unintentional shooting death rates. With nearly 89 guns for every 100 people, the United States has the highest private gun ownership rate among high-income countries. A study in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery found that "the United States has far higher rates of firearm deaths-firearm homicides, firearm suicides, and unintentional firearm deaths compared with other high-income countries."

Beyond the numbers, however, this is about human beings. And it's not just public outings with children. It's the depressed teenager at home. The couple whose fights rise to the level of domestic violence. The kid who knows exactly where his parents hide things. Every day you keep a firearm at home or on your person is a day you are subjecting yourself and your loved ones to risk. And we live in a country that has few if any laws on the books to mitigate that risk. Safe storage of firearms is almost never required. Parents are rarely held criminally responsible when children gain unauthorized access to their firearms. Screening/training requirements for those who carry firearms in public are minimal if they are there at all. The gun industry steadfastly refuses to employ personalized firearms technology. And so on...

For the NRA and their corporate allies at Fox News, this is fine and dandy. They have a dedicated interest in propping up the gun industry and have spent four decades telling the American people that there is no inherent risk from firearms ownership. Any and all attempts at mitigating risk are attacked as an affront to American values--as if needless death is a value.

When any one of the "gun people" is lost as a result of this insidious propaganda, they are immediately thrown under the bus and derided as singularly "stupid," "careless" and "irresponsible," even when that someone is a nuclear research scientist. "It was an isolated incident," we are told. One NRA member commenting at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence Facebook page wrote about Rutledge, "This woman deserved to die she was so abysmally stupid, the gene pool is better for it and the rest of us are safer for it." The Truth About Guns blogger Robert Farago was even more cutthroat in his analysis:

"Shall not be infringed" means no government-mandated regulation for keeping and bearing arms. None. No mandatory training. No background checks. No limitations on ammunition magazine size. No limitations on firearm type. No safe storage laws. Nothing ... The statistically insignificant--but nonetheless tragic--percentage who don't practice common sense gun safety sometimes pay the price. At the risk of sounding cruel, that's the price of freedom.

The point of such rhetoric, obviously, is to squash introspection about American gun culture in the wake of horrors. That culture wants all the rights in the world, with none of the incumbent responsibilities (which are so critical to personal safety). It has inculcated a mentality in many gun owners that is reckless, and which borders on nihilism. For Americans who truly value life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it is time to look at the science on this issue and reject propaganda that is ultimately aimed at bolstering gun industry profits, no matter what the cost.

There are certainly many legitimate purposes for firearms in our society, to include recreational shooting, home defense, collectors, etc. But just because something is legitimate doesn't make it wise. A divided Supreme Court has decided we have a right to have a gun in the home, but that doesn't mean it is a good idea to exercise that right without careful consideration of the risks involved.