In his book, “Dying of Whiteness,” Jonathan Metzl, a physician and sociologist at Vanderbilt University looked at how right-wing politics such as loosening gun laws, repealing the Affordable Care Act, and enacting massive tax cuts for the wealthy at the expense of everyone else, “came at mortal cost to the health and longevity” of lower- and middle-income white supporters. Specifically, Metzl studied gun laws in Missouri, health care policies in Tennessee, and tax cuts in Kansas, and how conservative politics in these states backfired against white males and their families.
Metzl documented the history of Missouri handgun laws which during the 1990s “were among the strictest in the nation, including a requirement that handgun buyers undergo background checks in person at sheriffs’ offices before obtaining permits.”
In the last 20 years, however, Missouri’s handgun laws have become among the most lenient in the nation, allowing open carry in public spaces, lowering the age to carry a concealed handgun to 19, repealing laws for comprehensive background checks, and “negating the rights of cities and towns to enact practically any form of gun control” according to Metzl.
The result of these pro-gun policies, enacted mostly by Republican politicians in Missouri and across America, has been devastating, especially on their strongest supporters: white men. Studies by Johns Hopkins University found that the changes in gun laws in Missouri were “associated with a 25 percent increase in firearm homicide rates” and that the “Missouri gun homicide rate rose to 47 percent higher than the national average.” They also found significant increases in the “rates of gun death by suicide, partner violence, and accidental shooting.”
What is happening in Missouri is happening across America. Over the past 20 years, gun suicide has increased by about 33 percent nationally, and white men living in homes with guns are the most likely victims, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. While they made up less than 35 percent of the population, between 2009 and 2015, white men accounted for almost 80 percent of gun suicides.
Suicide by gun in Missouri has become an epidemic and researchers believe the crisis is related to the availability of guns in homes.
Metzl looked at how people committed suicide over the years and found an association with the most available method at the time. For example, in the days of coal-fired gas ovens, people killed themselves by sitting next to their open ovens. With the introduction of non-poisonous natural gas in American kitchens, the rate of suicide decreased significantly. With the proliferation of handguns in people’s homes, suicide rates soared.
This link between guns in homes and suicide rates was confirmed in a 1992 government-funded study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The NRA did not appreciate the results of this study which found that, instead of keeping a family safe, having a gun in your home actually increased the risk of family members being killed. Thus, in 1996, the NRA successfully pushed Congress to ban government funding for gun research.
As a result of the 1996 ban, death by guns has become “the least researched major cause of death in the United States,” writes Metzl, even though it “kills more Americans than all other intentional means combined.” Sadly, Metzl writes, the people dying from guns are “the people who stood to benefit the most from the very research that their politics and politicians prohibited.”
The goal of suicide researchers is to “anticipate which persons are most likely to harm themselves in order to then prevent their self-destructive actions.” Prediction is the goal of prevention. But the easy access to a gun has changed this calculation. For most people who try to kill themselves — about 94 percent — it is an impulsive act, according to Scott Anderson, the author of the book, “The Urge to End It All.” With easy access to a gun in the home, this impulse becomes effectively deadly. Eighty-five percent of gun suicide attempts are successful.
Unfortunately, none of this research is likely to change the behavior of gun owners. Metzl attended a Missouri support group for people who lost family members to guns and could not find a single person who put any of the blame for the death of their family members on the availability of guns in their homes. When one woman was asked about the role of guns in the suicide of her 14-year-old grandson, she responded, “You know you’re in gun country now right?” Another responded, “It’s not the gun’s fault” and, “Guns are a way of life.”
For many families, guns are a way of life and a path to tragedy.
Tom Zirpoli, program coordinator of the human services management graduate program at McDaniel College, writes from Westminster. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at email@example.com.