If there’s one thing that President Donald Trump has grasped about U.S. politics these past four years, it’s the advantage of scaring people beyond rationality. Rarely during the presidential campaign, nor even in his post-election, denial-of-outcome tour, does Mr. Trump miss an opportunity to warn his loyalists about violence in “Democrat-run cities” and how he supports the Second Amendment, but Democrats do not. He mentioned it as recently as Saturday during an appearance on behalf of GOP Senate candidates in Valdosta, Georgia, warning that if Democrats won control of the chamber, they would “confiscate privately owned firearms” and “totally cut up your Second Amendment rights.”
Such an over-the-top message would be laughable, except it’s proven highly effective in motivating to his side NRA members, anti-immigrant groups and the racists who falsely believe the civil rights movement to be a criminal enterprise. This is particularly true as right-wing media provide a timely assist with far more attention given to incidents of violence associated with Black Lives Matter protests than with white supremacists, even as a study shows 93% of BLM protests are peaceful while white supremacists have been behind most terrorist attacks on U.S. soil this year, a fact acknowledged even by Mr. Trump’s Department of Homeland Security. And a recent analysis of FBI firearm background checks has demonstrated one of the consequences of such fear-mongering — a major uptick in public demand for firearms.
Maryland, unfortunately, finds itself in the thick of this trend with a whopping 76% increase in FBI firearm background checks in the first 11 months of 2020 compared to the entirety of 2019, a handy precursor of sales. That is much higher than the still-impressive 49% nationwide increase in background checks, and higher than the increase in all but six other states (most of them more politically conservative). What’s worrisome here is not that the gun industry has profited from scaring people or that Mr. Trump once again found a way to tap white insecurity and racial resentment, but that now a lot more households will be stocked with firearms. And that has some serious consequences, perhaps the most troubling of which is it means more accidental and suicide-related shootings.
Public health studies have shown this over and over again. Having a gun in your home makes you less safe. Men who own handguns, for example, are eight times more likely to die of a gun suicide than those who do not, according to a California study published in June in The New England Journal of Medicine. In the same study, women handgun owners were 35 times more likely to be killed than women who do not own guns. The logic here is inescapable: Suicide is often an impulsive act. The presence of a firearm, especially a handgun, makes the option much more readily available. Suicide is by far the leading cause of firearm deaths, outpacing homicide by a nearly two-to-one margin. Accidental shootings are less common (representing around 1% of firearm deaths each year), but they still represented 458 deaths in 2018 including dozens of children.
Mental health practitioners have frequently expressed concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic may have increased suicide risk. The despair and isolation, the economic downturn, an uptick in consumption of alcohol and drugs, and the difficulty getting routine medical care, these factors have obviously raised the stakes. Remarkably, the U.S. has so far not seen any documented suicide increase, but guarding against one seems more than prudent under the circumstances. Even President Trump has remarked on the enhanced danger of suicide during COVID-19, albeit to argue against pandemic-related lockdowns, not to recommend a cautious approach to gun purchases which might actually prove effective.
Meanwhile, don’t blame Joe Biden for raising public interest in gun buying, blame how Republicans have fueled an irrational fear of Mr. Biden’s gun policies. The president-elect’s positions on guns are not much different from where polls show most Americans are — he’s against high-capacity magazines and assault rifles and for universal background checks. To suggest this is gun-grabbing is the equivalent of protesting speed limits as an unconstitutional violation of freedom of movement. Meanwhile, cities like Baltimore will continue to be flooded with guns purchased elsewhere, stolen (or simply resold through poorly-regulated private sales) and then used to commit crimes. Perhaps what Americans need most right now is simply to learn the facts and recognize the danger posed by having a gun in their home.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.