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American citizens have a right to own handguns. The U.S. Supreme Court made that clear with its 2008 decision that tossed out as unconstitutional the District of Columbia's 32-year-old ban on handguns. So you can buy them, but it is probably a better idea not to.
The statistics are clear. There is a far greater chance that the handgun you buy will result in your death or that of a family member or other acquaintance than the odds you will use it in self-defense. In the past few weeks here in southeastern Connecticut it has become tragically clear what access to a gun can mean.
On Jan. 7 in Norwich, police responded to a call about a distraught armed man at an apartment in the city. Jason Razzino, 30, confronted police for several hours, refusing to come out. He shot Officer Jonathan Ley, 38, several times, leaving him seriously injured. That incident ended when Razzino fatally turned a handgun on himself.
One week ago, Feb. 24, police were again confronting a distressed man armed with a handgun, this time 52-year-old Michael Dugas in a small city park. According to police accounts he refused to surrender and, when he raised the gun, several officers fired their weapons, killing him. The shooting remains under investigation.
Then came the incident this past Tuesday when Debra Denison, 47, a woman with a history of mental illness, was found dead in a van in North Stonington along with her two grandchildren, 6-month-old Ashton Perry and his brother, Alton Perry, who turned 2 that day. Denison used a handgun to kill the boys and herself.
All five of these people would likely be alive today if they did not have access to guns.
These outcomes would not surprise those who have studied the relationship between guns and mortality.
In his 2003 study, "Homicide and Suicide Risks Associated with Firearms in the Home: A National Case-Control Study," Douglas J. Wiebe, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania, concluded that 94 percent of gun-related suicides would not occur under the same circumstances had no gun been present.
In the late 1990s, researchers at the Center for Injury Control at the Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University, Atlanta, set out to determine the frequency with which guns in the home are used to injure or kill in self-defense, compared with the number of times such weapons are involved in unintentional injury, suicide attempt, criminal assault or homicide. Over an 18-month period they looked at the records for all fatal and nonfatal shootings in Memphis, Tenn., Seattle, Wash. and Galveston, Texas.
Out of 626 shootings, researchers were able to determine 438 were assaults or homicides, 118 attempted or completed suicides and 54 accidental shootings. Thirteen shootings resulted from an act of self-defense, three of those by police officers. In other words, for every time a gun in the home was used in self-defense or other legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or successful suicides.
The study's conclusion was straight forward: "Guns kept in homes are more likely to be involved in a fatal or nonfatal accident shooting, criminal assault, or suicide attempt than to be used to injure or kill in self-defense."
A study by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center looked into accidental shootings, using statistics gathered by the Centers for Disease Control from 2003-2006. The accidental shootings were roughly half self-inflicted, half inflicted by someone else. In other-inflicted shooting deaths, the shootings were overwhelmingly by young people (81 percent under age 25), and were often friends (43 percent) or family (47 percent), with brothers the most common family shooter.
Parents assure researchers that they safely keep their guns away from children, but among gun-owning parents who reported that their children had never handled their firearm at home, 22 percent of the children, when questioned separately and confidentially, said that they had handled the gun. And of youths who commit suicide, 82 percent get the firearm from their home, according to The National Violent Injury Statistics System.
We might have more information, but in the mid-1990s Congress, reacting to lobbying by the National Rifle Association, ordered the Centers for Disease Control not to conduct any further studies that "may be used to advocate or promote gun control." Incredible. But before the gun-lobby shut down research, the CDC concluded that having a gun in the house meant those living there were 300 percent more likely to die from firearm homicide or suicide than people living in houses where no guns were kept.
No wonder the NRA wanted the research stopped.
Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.