Gun Violence And A Grandfather's Suicide

There may be no good explanation for why these events happen, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to prevent them.

On a rainy morning in fall 2015, I received a devastating phone call. My grandpa, my favorite curmudgeon to call for advice on car trouble and home projects, or just to have a friendly voice on a long ride home, had passed away. My grandfather was dead at the age of 90 – not so rare. But he was dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Unfortunately, that violent death is not so rare either. More than 30,000 people die from gun violence every year in this country, according to the CDC. Half of those deaths are from suicide. Just having access to a gun doesn’t increase the likelihood of attempting suicide, but it increases the rate of death by many, many times, according to the American Journal of Public Health. For every three additional households that acquire a firearm, one additional person dies of suicide.

Despite these overwhelming statistics, suicide is being overtaken as the foremost firearm killer. As mass shootings have become more lethal, with the three most deadly shootings in the U.S. occurring in the last year and a half, the fear of dying at the heavily armed hands of a terrorist has grown more and more real.

Years ago, schools were ceded as public sanctuaries. Columbine has become a minor tragedy, dropping off the horrifying top-ten list of massacres in the wake of Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech. We have learned to look for the exits at movie theaters and concert venues and nightclubs.

And now we are losing our houses of worship to gun violence. Following the shootings in Charleston and Sutherland Springs, I have knelt again and again in my preacher’s robes to speak to children asking, “Pastor, what if somebody comes to shoot me at our church?”

There is no satisfactory answer to that question. There is no good answer to the too-frequent question, “Why did he kill himself?” But there are good public policy solutions to this violence.

First, we must dedicate resources to figuring out what we don’t know. There is no scientific consensus on whether banning assault rifles or bump stocks or large-capacity magazines does any good. According to the American Medical Association, gun violence is the least studied of our leading causes of death. Before we start fights with our neighbors that may not be worth the cost, we must abolish the 1996 law that prevents top scientists from studying gun safety, so that we can make informed policy decisions.

The second solution is more difficult. A landmark study demonstrates that high rates of gun ownership – not mental health care, not violent video games, not racial strife – are the best explanation for the growing likelihood that an American will die from a gunshot. The Second Amendment has been central to the way we think of ourselves as a country, but perhaps it is time for that to change. Perhaps it is time that the constitutionally enshrined right to violently overthrow an oppressive government cede some ground to another right: to protect our homes, our schools, and our sanctuaries from violence at the end of a gun.

Katherine Blaisdell holds an MPA from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is a minister for youth and families in metro Boston. She is the wife of a Military Police officer and the granddaughter of a World War II veteran.