Ending gun violence will never happen if well-intentioned people are afraid of gun control.
For nearly two years, I sat through Democratic staff briefings in the House of Representatives, many of which focused on how to talk about guns. We had polling experts explain survey results. We had gun experts explain how weapons work. And we had public relations experts explain how we should talk about gun reform. The only takeaway I remember from the latter is an admonition: Never say “gun control” because responsible gun owners don’t like that.
The experts are dead wrong. I know because I am a responsible gun owner.
For years, Democrats have shied away from the words “gun control.” As Molly Ball put it in The Atlantic, gun control “conjures images of confiscation.” Well, the fact of the matter is that some guns might need to be confiscated. The semiautomatic assault-style weapons that are common features in mass shootings and white supremacist terrorism come to mind. We should not be afraid of banning and buying back some firearms.
The fact is that all guns are inherently dangerous — especially semiautomatic rifles and handguns. Guns are not safe by design, and there is no way to make them entirely safe. They are designed to maim and kill. The .357 Magnum I inherited from my mother could easily tear through flesh, leaving a gaping cavity wherever the bullet might exit its target. And the .40 caliber semiautomatic Beretta I purchased in 2013 can do the same. The Beretta is particularly dangerous because it came with two 12-round magazines that can fire 24 bullets in around a minute, depending on how long it takes to switch magazines.
It boggles me that at age 26, I was able to lawfully purchase and possess a .40 caliber semiautomatic handgun and ammunition at Academy, a big-box store, in roughly a half hour. Think about that for a moment. It took less time for me to buy a lethal weapon than it takes to get a burger at Shake Shack. It was too easy.
No one should be able to purchase a gun and walk out of the store in the same day. Suicide rates are rising in the United States. Suicide is generally impulsive, and access to a gun increases the likelihood that a suicide attempt will end with death. In states where handgun purchases are subject to a waiting period, suicide rates are between 11 and 27 percent lower. Waiting periods work.
Right now, the handguns I own are unloaded. They are stored in a steel safe with a combination lock at my family’s home in Louisiana, a thousand miles away from where I live in the D.C. suburbs. The handguns are stored separately from any ammunition, and the only people who have access to the safe are my aunt and uncle, both in their seventies. By most measures, that makes me a responsible gun owner.
Nevertheless, around two-thirds of firearm deaths in the United States are suicides. That means firearm suicide takes more than 22,000 lives every year. Firearms are used in 5 percent of suicide attempts but cause more than half of suicide deaths. Moreover, suicide death rates increase with age. Among older white men like my uncle, suicide rates can be as high as 48.7 out of every 100,000 people.
To be frank, I have come to question whether anyone can truly be a responsible gun owner, myself included. The data say no. My purportedly safe and responsible storage is a threat to the people I love.
A firearm in the home increases the risk of suicide, homicide, and accidental death among all members of the family. Access to a firearm triples a person’s risk of death by suicide. Access to a firearm doubles the risk of homicide. And access to a firearm significantly increases the likelihood of accidental death. In other words, access to guns increases death.
The data showing that more guns equal more death are not unique to the United States. When looking at the world’s high-income countries, those with more guns also have more gun deaths. But the United States stands alone as the world’s most heavily armed civilian population. There are more civilian-owned firearms in this country than there are people. Although we do not have a higher rate of crime than other high-income countries, we have a significantly higher rate of gun deaths.
What this tells me is that gun ownership is an unnecessary risk, and it is irresponsible for any civilian to take that risk.
The background check bills passed by the House of Representatives and languishing in the Republican-controlled Senate are a start. But they do not address the real problem — the guns themselves. Enough with the euphemisms. We don’t need “gun reform” or “gun safety” or “gun violence prevention” or “near-universal background checks.” We need top-to-bottom gun control that gets firearms out of homes and off the streets.
R. Kyle Alagood is a lawyer and Democratic adviser from Harrisonburg, La.