West Virginia has a gun plague

It’s odd that in our debate about guns and killing we rarely mention the form of death in which guns are most frequently involved. It’s not murder or acts of self-defense, which serve as the usual bookends of the argument. It’s suicide.

Even if you add all of the murders, all of the killings that take place in self-defense, and all of the accidental deaths in which guns are involved, you don’t come close to matching the number of times someone puts a gun to his head or heart and pulls the trigger.

The fact is, when guns kill, the victim is usually the gun’s owner.

This is disturbing because, when the perpetrator and the victim are the same person, slogans such as, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” become nonsensical. We’re forced to transcend simplistic notions of “good guys” and “bad guys” and enter the real and messy world of personal strife, pain, and struggle.

So often we hear that law-abiding gun owners are trained in how to use guns properly. But, what we need to know is are they trained to cope with the wounds and pain and disappointments that life inflicts and that drive people to deranged actions?

They demonstrably are not. The states that rank first, second, and third for gun ownership — Wyoming, Alaska, and Montana — also rank first, second, and third for suicide. West Virginia, which ranks fifth in gun ownership, is only 17th for suicide, but even that rate is a quarter higher than the national average.

Of course, the risks associated with guns don’t end with suicide. There are murders, most of which are committed, not by strangers or intruders, but by family members on one another or by people with whom the victim has a close relationship. At the time they purchase guns people almost never do so with the expectation of killing themselves, a family member or a boyfriend or girlfriend. But, that’s what happens.

Simply stated, when you introduce guns into your home, you may or may not reduce the threat of being attacked or killed by an intruder – the statistics on this point are vague – but you unquestionably increase the risk of major injury and death to yourself, family members, and guests.

In a 2006 paper in the New England Journal of Medicine, doctors Matt Miller and David Hemenway showed that people living in homes with guns are 12 times more likely to suffer violent injury or death from that weapon than they are from the actions of an intruder. Moreover, men in the states with the highest rates of gun ownership are four times more likely to commit suicide with a gun than their counterparts in the states with the lowest rates of gun ownership. And women in high-ownership states are eight times more likely than their counterparts to kill themselves with guns. The added risk extends to children as well.

That’s why some of us look askance at claims that gun ownership is an effective method of self-protection.

And it’s not as though the carnage of suicide and domestic violence can be fobbed off on the entertainment industry, which has become the NRA’s latest scapegoat as it tries to deflect attention from guns. While video games and movies glamorize depersonalized violence and mass killing, the same is not true of suicide, which is almost never depicted, or domestic violence, which, even when depicted, is rarely glamorized.

It’s simply the case that the suddenness and near certainty with which guns work make them perfect tools for impulsive acts of suicide and murder.

But, there’s some good news. Nationally rates of firearm-related crime have dropped over the past 20 years, as have rates of gun ownership, which is down to less than a third of American households.

Unfortunately, this has not been true in West Virginia where gun ownership remains over 50 percent. West Virginia used to be the safest state in the nation, but is no longer. Over the last 15 years, as the nation’s murder rate has dropped by a third, West Virginia’s has risen by 14 percent. As a result we now rank 24th, tied with New Jersey and ahead of New York. And, for every murder in West Virginia, there are more than three suicides, which puts us way ahead of both New York and New Jersey in total deaths by firearm.

We also spread the plague. On a per capita basis, West Virginia exports more guns that are used in crimes than any other state. Still, the NRA and others who oppose virtually all efforts to control guns fall back on the Second Amendment guarantee of the right to bear arms — a right that they argue is necessary so that an armed citizenry can dissuade or defeat would-be tyrants who would seize the government.

But, no right is absolute. And our democracy’s bulwarks against tyranny are the Constitution’s guarantees of basic rights and the voice in government bestowed on all citizens. Against those noble guarantees, quaint notions of tyrannical government take-overs being repulsed by armed citizen insurrectionists are trivial and come at the price of 19,000 suicides a year, a murder rate three times that of Canada and four times that of the U.K., and, of course, Columbine, Aurora, and worst of all, Sandy Hook.

It’s too high a price to pay.

— Sean O’Leary can be contacted at seanoleary@citlink.net. A version of this column containing links to references and statistical sources may be found at


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5 Responses to West Virginia has a gun plague

  1. I’m sorry but this article is severely misguided. It is no coincidence that the states mentioned Wyoming, Alaska and Montana have a high rate of suicide, all are rural secluded areas with a majority White populations. Those two items are the most commonly linked circumstances to suicide, White males in secluded rural areas. People intent on doing themselves harm will find a way to do so, much like a deranged gunman. They would jump off a bridge or slit their wrists instead, although your article does not break down suicide rates in general, it just insinuates gun owners are more likely to commit suicide. Not that a gun owner is typically in the same demographic as the highest rate of suicide in general, this epiphany is nothing new. Therefore, for the good of the nation we must all give up some liberty so that a person who is intent on suicide has one less option. Also I love how you insinuate owning a gun is a bad thing, because we as West Virginians have not wised up (or maybe, liberalized up) like New York, California or the media for that matter. It is obvious to me that this particular writer and whoever approved this article to be published have a clear cut agenda and we just are not smart enough to follow along! In all honesty your weakness turns my stomach. We are all so fortunate this country was not founded by people like you. If it were we would be the 50 colonies right now not 50 states. Also please feel free to sit back and either enjoy your freedoms which have been and still are provided by people toting guns, (US Military, which has also had an alarming increase in suicide rates. Maybe we should consider taking their guns also).

    • WVBill, I’m sorry if I only insinuated that gun owners are more likely to commit suicide. I’ll make it clear. They ARE more likely to commit suicide. That continues to be true even after you control for other demographics. Also, the assertion that people who commit suicide with guns would merely find other ways to do so is incorrect. Suicides by other means such as asphyxiation and poisoning take place with nearly identical frequency in high gun-ownership states as they do in low gun-ownership states, which suggests that suicides by gun are “in addition to”, not “instead of”.

      What is true, however, is that the difference between the total number of suicide ATTEMPTS in high gun-ownership states and low-ownershp states isn’t as great as the difference in completed suicides. But, because people in high-ownership states are more likely to use guns and, because the “success” rate with guns is much higher than it is for other methods, the number of completed suicides ends up being much higher as well.

  2. One cannot argue with a macho gun nut that is more concerned with preventing a bad guy from stealing his big screen TV, then preventing his son from committing suicide by shooting himself in the head or accidentally shooting his little brother.

  3. Sean,

    I will agree that a person who owns a gun and attempts suicide with it has a higher likelihood of success than someone who does not. My point is the gun is NOT the reason for the suicide it is most likely one or more of many other underlying issues. So to limit the CHANCE of success for these people we must ALL give up some liberty, I disagree. My question to you is, how much? How much do we limit the Second Amendment? Do we limit it a lot or completely?

    Let’s say we limit it drastically, back to single shot muskets and flintlock pistols. We then assume everyone who owns a gun now owns a musket/flintlock. How many of those suicides do you think you would have prevented? Not one, because of those suicides committed with a gun, 99% are achieved with one shot. In all honesty, you are going from a small caliber handgun to a large caliber musket ball you just increased their chance for success. Also, how much have you limited the people’s ability to protect and defend themselves? I think considerably.

    Next, let’s go for the all-out utopia, we completely ban guns. You have succeeded, the suicide rate by gun has dropped to near zero! Although not completely because not all will obey your new laws. But none the less it’s a success. Now how much do you think you have limited the ability of the people to protect and defend themselves? Completely! I know gun control advocates like to trot out statistics on the reduction in gun crime in the UK and Australia after they severely restricted gun ownership. But at the same time fail to mention that the overall violent crime rate has increased significantly. Now as mentioned above, some will not obey the law the majority will. Of those who do or don’t, do you think one group may prey on the other? Do you think that completely preventing an entire population to defend themselves is outweighed by preventing far less suicides than may die form not being able to protect themselves from violent crimes?

    I have heard a saying many times, “When seconds count, the police are minutes away”. Also let’s consider what side of this discussion one of our founding fathers and the namesake of the Publication who posted this article would be on.

    “Laws that forbid the carrying of arms…disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes… Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man.”

    Cesare Beccaria, as quoted by Thomas Jefferson


    “The beauty of the second amendment is that it will not be needed until they try to take it.” -Thomas Jefferson

  4. WVBill, I think you put your finger on the issue when you point out that there’s a trade-off between safety and the second amendment right to own firearms. It’s the kind of trade-off we’re forced to make all the time, such as when we make it illegal to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater despite the first amendment guarantee of free speech. The challenge is to figure out the conditions in which society’s legitimate desire for security outweighs the individual’s right, which is an issue about which intelligent people of good will can disagree.

    In that spirit, I hope you’ll consider two points. First, the presence of guns increases the lethality of all confrontations, including those we have with ourselves, which are otherwise known as suicide. The same is true of family and relationship disputes, which is why they produce the majority of murders.

    Second, every gun that’s used in a suicide or in the commission of a crime was acquired at some point from a law-abiding company or citizen — the point being, the greater the prevalence of guns in society, even when they’re distributed legally, the greater the likelihood of violence and death.

    So, the question is, at what point does the level of violence become intolerable. Speaking only for myself, with murder rates three and four times that of other developed countries and with suicide rates that are two to three times the murder rate, I think we’re way beyond the tipping point.

    At the same time, I wish laws weren’t necessary. I wish people who consider purchasing guns for “protection” would look at the statistics and see that, rather than diminishing their chances of falling victim to serious injury or death, by having a gun in their homes they increase the risk many times over. That’s true of woundings and murders as well as suicides. With that understanding, if they are sincere about their motivation being safety, they would never make the purchase because to do so would be irrational. The statistics are clear that, for most people and families, having a gun is a cure that isn’t only worse than the disease . . . it is the disease.

    So, while as you say, guns are merely an expedient, not the cause of tragedy, they radically multiply our capacity to do irreparable harm in our worst moments, which is a fact born out by the statistics. By the way, you should check the stats on Australia. While it’s true that the number of assaults has increased, the number of murders, armed robberies, and suicides has declined even while they have all increased in neighboring New Zealand, which did not pass gun control measures.

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