Setting the Record Straight on Gun Violence Prevention
I first became aware of America’s gun violence epidemic in December 2012, when news of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School left our nation in shock. My friend rushed up to me in our high school’s library and told me that children my younger brother’s age had been murdered in their classrooms. I remember gathering with my peers and praying together for the victims and their families.
That day is seared into my memory forever. What stands out most in retrospect, however, is my certainty that those in power — our leaders — would take action to prevent this from happening again. Sadly, I was wrong.
Despite efforts to institute commonsense reforms, legislators were unable to pass federal gun violence prevention legislation in the immediate aftermath of Sandy Hook. I was appalled. I was angry. And I was determined to act.
Since then, I have advocated (in voting booths and everyday conversations) for gun violence prevention. For the last several months, I have expanded my efforts by interning at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV). During my internship, I have gained important insights into aspects of gun violence prevention that I thought I already understood.
The Reality of Guns & Mental Illness
Prior to my work at CSGV, I thought guns and mental illness only intersected in the context of mass shootings. I already knew that mental illness is not a significant risk factor for interpersonal violence, and I didn’t buy the NRA’s insistence that mass shootings are caused by insufficient mental health care. I recognized the fiction and the stigmatizing nature of those statements, but hadn’t yet unearthed the reality of guns and mental illness.
Early in my internship, I discovered suicides account for more than 60 percent of America’s gun deaths. Approximately 20,000 people die by firearm suicide every year, yet this fact is rarely part of the mainstream conversation surrounding gun violence. Politicians on both sides of the aisle often (incorrectly) mention mental illness as a risk factor for violence. But in reality, individuals with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.
CSGV’s focus on suicide prevention, advocacy for those with mental illness, and promotion of policies based on behavioral risk factors for violence are important steps towards preventing gun violence and destigmatizing mental illness. One such law, the extreme risk protection order (ERPO), also known as a gun violence restraining order (GVRO), recently passed in California, Washington, and Oregon. ERPO allows loved ones and/or law enforcement to petition courts to temporarily remove firearms from individuals who might pose a threat to themselves or others. The GVRO is effective because it is based on evidence-based risk factors for dangerousness rather than a diagnosis of mental illness. These are the types of policies that are effective while avoiding further stigmatization of those with mental illness.
The Myth of Defensive Gun Use
Another common misconception about gun violence is that having a firearm makes households and communities safer. I was always skeptical of this claim, but until recently, I wasn’t familiar with the evidence that contradicts this myth. Despite the fact that 60 percent of American gun owners cite personal protection as their primary motivation to own a firearm, research shows having a gun in the home actually increases a household’s risk of being victims of suicide and homicide. Guns do not make us safer. We don’t live in the Wild West — gun slinging self-defense is a dangerous, misguided fantasy perpetuated by the NRA.
The Gun Debate’s Fictional Divisions (Brought to You by the NRA)
The NRA’s role in the gun debate was definitely the most surprising thing I discovered during my time at CSGV. Prior to my internship, I assumed that the NRA represented the views of American gun owners. Since the NRA opposes commonsense gun reforms, like universal background checks, I thought that must also be gun owners’ position.
But in reality, an overwhelming majority of gun owners in the United States disagree with the NRA. Most gun owners support universal background checks; nearly 60 percent of gun owners believe the NRA has abandoned its original mission of gun safety and now exists to represent gun manufacturers.
The NRA, and the politicians it controls, sacrifice the well-being of the American people to increase gun industry profits. There is more common ground on gun violence prevention issues than the NRA wants us to think. To make our country safer, we must reject the fictional divisiveness engineered by the NRA to sell more guns.
After my experience at CSGV, I recognize the importance of facts and data in policymaking and conversations about gun violence prevention. In a world where “fake news” and “alternative facts” often dominate the political conversation, we must remember to question sensationalist rhetoric and trust empirical data. Doing so is the best way to save lives.
Ellen Morrissey was the summer editorial intern at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. She is a sophomore at Kenyon College.