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In times of crisis, guns pose greatest danger to their owners and family members

In times of crisis, guns pose greatest danger to their owners and family members
© GEORGE FREY/AFP via Getty Images

Gun dealers have reaped significant profits from the COVID-19 crisis as frightened Americans arm themselves out of fear of their neighbors. The president has seemingly validated this paranoia by declaring gun dealers “essential businesses.” Those lining up to buy arms and ammunition no doubt believe they will use their weapons only in self-defense. The evidence says otherwise. 

The most likely victim of a firearm is the gun owner himself. According to recent statistics, suicide accounts for 60 percent of gun deaths. Suicide has many causes, but mental health professionals agree that being faced with “what seems to be an overwhelming life situation” tops the list. What could be more overwhelming than being isolated at home without a job facing a stack of bills you can’t pay? Many experts fear suicides will increase as the COVID-19 crisis escalates. Guns make it much easier for despondent people to kill themselves.

The risk to battered women also increases dramatically when they live with firearm owners. Abuse victims are five times more likely to be killed if their abuser owns a gun. The same COVID-19 stressors that increase the risk of suicide will probably lead to increased domestic violence. Stay-at-home orders force victims to live in close confinement with their abusers, who may be unemployed and looking for someone on whom to vent their anger. To make matters worse, shelters and other support services for battered women will not be readily available during the crisis. Hotlines and online services are trying to pick up the slack, but it will be much harder for women to you use those service when trapped in houses or apartments with their abusers.

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Abusers seek to isolate their victims, making it easier to control them. Steps taken to curtail the spread of COVID-19 inadvertently facilitate that isolation. Woman have reported living in fear of being thrown out of their homes with nowhere to go or being locked out if they do leave. When their abuser owns a gun, that fear and their chance of dying increase.

Guns also put children at greater risk. Each year, 1,300 children under the age of 18 die as a result of accidental shootings. In many cases a sibling or friend gets hold of a gun and treats it as a toy with tragic results. An estimated 22 million children live in a home with a firearm, many of them at risk of accidental death. Gunowners insist that they keep their weapons in a safe place, but a securely stored gun will not be readily available for self-defense. If your firearm is near enough at hand for you to prevent a break-in, your child or grandchild can find it.

First-time gun buyers concerned about safety face a serious challenge. Stay-at-home orders make it virtually impossible for them to take a firearm safety course or get professional training at a firing ranger. An untrained, inexperienced novice with a gun is more likely to shoot an innocent person than to stop an intruder. 

Despite the emphatic insistence of the gun lobby to the contrary, statistics do not support the claim that firearms prevent crime. Quite the opposite. A 2015 study based on FBI and CDC data revealed that firearm assaults were 6.8 percent higher in states with the most guns than in states with the least. Anyone who purchases a gun to protect their home from a break-in should consider this grim statistic: a compilation of studies revealed that people who had a firearm in their home were almost twice as likely to be murdered.

Ironically, the race to buy guns and ammo for self-defense runs counter to the original intent of the second amendment. Gun owners insist that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” but they leave out the qualifying clause that precedes that assertion: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State.” The right to bear arms carried with it the obligation to defend the country in time of war by serving in a state-run militia. The framers intended the second amendment as a collective not an individual defense measure. They believed in something we have forgotten: the common good.

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“Fear is a bad advisor,” an old Dutch saying has it. Doing risk assessment in a crisis is like food shopping when you are ravenously hungry. You don’t make good choices. Frightened people exaggerate the threat other pose. The odds of the average person needing a firearm to protect themselves and their families during their entire lifetime is remote. The odds of the gun they buy killing a loved are much greater.

So before running out to buy a gun, please consider just who you might kill.

Tom Mockaitis is a professor History at DePaul University. His latest book is "Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat."