Two weeks ago, a decorated American soldier, husband and father of young children slaughtered 17 Afghan wives, fathers and young children in their homes. In doing so, he killed the people he was supposed to protect with the gun he was supposed to use to protect them, something I am certain he once could never have imagined himself doing. If the news did not make you want to curl up with your blankie and cry, your heart is missing its strings.
What made a temporary monster out of a decent man, we may never know. What made these deaths statistically inevitable, however, is the math of people and guns, which goes like this: The more guns we have in a population of people, the more often innocent people will be killed with those guns.
In America, this math points to a paradox: More and more of us are buying guns because we think having them around makes us safer when, in fact, the opposite is true. Those guns are more likely to be used against us than to be used to protect us, and their addition to our homes make us more likely to be victims, not less.
A 1998 study of 626 shootings in three American cities showed that, for every time a gun in the home was used for self-defense, there were 11 attempted or completed suicides, four unintentional shootings and seven homicides or criminal assaults.
On a larger scale, numerous studies have shown that the higher a population’s rate of gun ownership is, the higher its rate of gun deaths is. That’s why Alaska, where 60 percent of homes have guns in them, has a gun death rate six times higher than Hawaii, where about 10 percent of homes have guns.
That’s why there were more than 31,000 gun deaths in America in 2010, of which 19,308 were suicides and 11,015 were homicides. We have a rate of gun deaths in America that makes us look more like Afghanistan than any other western country because we have the highest rate of gun ownership in the western world.
And because the closer you are to a gun the more likely that gun is to be used on you or someone you love, most of those deaths are killings of someone else in the home where the gun is or suicides of home inhabitants who got hold of the guns.
That means if you put enough guns where enough American children might get their hands on them, sooner or later the math of probability will produce tragedy. In a recent incident in Seattle, Wash., a three-year-old accidentally shot and killed himself with the handgun his father left in the car while gassing it up. A police officer’s son brought the officer’s handgun to school in a backpack; when he accidentally dropped the backpack the gun fired a bullet that struck and seriously injured a classmate. Add up hundreds of such tragedies each year and what do you get? This: Our rate of firearm deaths for children under the age of 15 is about three times higher than in any European country.
This all means the second a gun is added to our home, our odds of being shot with it have increased. The second we allow more students to carry them on college campuses or employees to bring them to work in cars, the second we have made college campuses and those workplaces less safe. The more neighborhood watch members we have patrolling with guns on their hips the more deadly confrontations there will be with teenagers.
These deadly facts must be considered as more states change laws to make it easier to buy guns, and especially to carry guns with us everywhere we go. As more of us own them, walk around with pistols on our hips or drive with them our cars, we are not making ourselves safer. We are, in fact, inexorably making ourselves more and more likely to be shot by our own guns, the ones we bought never imagining in a million years they would never be turned against our own husbands, wives and children.
Erik Steele, a physician in Bangor, is chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems.