There’s been a lot of discussion in recent days about whether gun sellers should be deemed an “essential business” as the country desperately tries to limit social contact and mitigate the impact of the coronavirus global pandemic. Some view continued access to firearms as essential to protecting themselves against an anticipated breakdown in the social order amid shortages of food and toilet paper.
The important conversation is not about whether gun dealers have a constitutional right to remain open during a national emergency (at least one court has ruled that gun shops are not “life-sustaining”), but rather whether embracing gun ownership is a prudent way to protect your family.
While we all want to keep our families safe, the facts are clear: guns do not make us safer, and they won’t help protect us from the coronavirus. Some people feel safer with a gun, but the truth is that they or one of their family members are more likely to be killed by that gun than to be protected from a criminal assault.
That’s what happened in Albuquerque this week, where police reported that a 19-year-old killed his cousin with a gun he felt was necessary for protection amidst the crisis. Very presciently, his mother forbade him from having guns at home; the shooting occurred at the cousin’s home.
During this time of escalating stress and anxiety, the dangers that guns bring to the home will be magnified. The evidence is overwhelming: access to firearms in the home is associated with increased rates of homicide and suicide, as well as unintentional death and injury, particularly of children.
Every day, eight children and teens are injured or killed in the U.S. due to unlocked or unsupervised guns in the home. Contrary to their parents’ beliefs, most children know where guns are hidden in the home. With schools closed and children at home, the risk of unintentional gun death and injury will be higher.
Multiple studies have found that access to a gun in the home increases the risk of suicide. Over 80 percent of child firearm suicides use a gun belonging to a family member. Guns are up to 11 times more likely to be used in a suicide than for self-defense. During a time of significantly heightened anxiety over economic security, it is likely the risk of suicide will increase. Adding more guns to the mix is not prudent.
Women are five times more likely to be killed when a domestic abuser has access to a firearm (and there is no clear evidence that having a gun protects female victims from their abusers). About 4.5 million women have been threatened with a gun and nearly 1 million have been shot or shot at by an intimate partner.
Under the current circumstances, when large numbers of people are confined to their homes and levels of stress are increasing dramatically, increased access to firearms will put women (and their children) who are in abusive relationships at higher levels of life-threatening risk. In a PBS News Hour segment about coronavirus and domestic violence, a victim spoke about how her husband threatened her with his gun, for the first time, over an argument about her continuing to work during the crisis.
The argument for deeming gun sellers as “essential” is presumably based on protecting the right to self-defense. But studies show that the widespread use of firearms for protecting against criminals is a myth. Based on data from the National Crime Victimization Study, fewer than 1 percent of crime victims use a gun for self-defense. More important, using a gun for self-defense is no more effective than other measures, such as calling 9-1-1 for help. But a gun in the home does have dangerous unintended consequences, being more likely to cause an unintentional shooting, an unprovoked assault or homicide, or a suicide, than they are for the rare occasion that it is used in self-defense.
For those who do have firearms in their home, or know others who do, it’s important to be sure they are unloaded and securely stored. All guns should be securely stored regardless of whether others live in the home to protect the guns from unauthorized access or being stolen (about 380,000 guns are stolen each year; many end up as crime guns). In Connecticut it’s the law that all firearms must be securely stored when there are children in the home under age 18, when an individual prohibited from owning guns resides in the home, or when there is reason to believe an individual in the home is at risk of harm to themselves or others.
If a child is going to someone else’s home, parents should always ask if there is a firearm in the house, and if so to be certain that it is stored locked and unloaded. The question should be asked for all children, including older teens whether they are hanging out with friends or going to a home for work such as babysitting.
In the coming months all of us will be under extraordinary stress. For some, that could lead to considerations of suicide. The presence of firearms in the home increases the risk of suicide by orders of magnitude. If you know someone with access to firearms who may be at risk of imminent harm to themselves or others, and voluntary efforts to prevent access have not worked, call 9-1-1, explain the situation and ask to get an extreme risk protection order (ERPO). If the threat is imminent, the police can apply for a protection order to remove the firearms. You can learn more about using an ERPO to prevent firearm suicide at bit.ly/cagvedfund_erpo_brochure.
The facts are clear, guns do not make us safer; they are not the cure to protect our families during these uncertain times.
Jonathan Perloe is communications director for CT Against Gun Violence.