Start with a sad counterfactual: you died in 2011. Violently. You died because of a projectile shot from a firearm. And so, for the last year and change, you have been relieved of your mortal soul.
The question: would any of the proposed gun control measures we’ve seen in the last 200 days emerge and collapse have prevented your death? I’ll infer what I can, drawing from the most recent non-partisan data I have and parsing what forces – social, psychological, economic – led to your demise. To recap: in 2011, you were shot.
Well, odds are you shot yourself. Intentional self-harm comprised a little more than 60% of gun deaths in 2011. More Americans shot themselves in that year than have died in both Gulf Wars and the war in Afghanistan combined. Your decision to shoot yourself puts you in the majority of suicides (70% involve a gun). Statistically, you were most likely to be over 65 or under 24. If you were in the younger group, it's likely your suicide weapon was in your home already. Since 75% of youth suicides involve a gun already in the home, mandating gun-locks in the home would seem a common-sense corrective, one that wouldn’t limit any gun ownership.
 And anyone unlucky enough to follow me on Twitter in the last month knows my disgust at the incredibly-shrinking scope of the proposed legislation and its utterly crazy-making defeat in the Senate.
 Namely, the Center for Disease Control’s National Vital Statistics Report Deaths: Preliminary Data for 2011. And now I might as well say we’re going on a baseline of 2011, as this is the most recent year for which we have reasonably comprehensive date.
If you fell into this 60% of gun suicides, you almost certainly displayed signs of either depression or substance abuse in the past, which means a there is likely a criminal or psychiatric record associated with you. Since you succeeded in killing yourself, statistically you probably attempted suicide several times before. See what I’m driving at?
Most of these indicators – drug arrests, previous suicide attempts – would emerge in a standardized universal background check. If this background check included an added focus on mental health history and a mandatory waiting period, I think it is safe to say this would deter the sort of sudden-decision suicides. 50% of all suicides attempts occur within an hour of the individual’s decision to take her life, and research has shown that many suicidal persons abandon their plan when the most convenient and deadly means is removed.
 Ostensibly something the political right is willing to join together on.
 The five-day waiting period and required background check of the Brady Bill only pertains to handguns and excludes private sales (ie: gun shows). Most states have no additional restrictions, and it’s worth noting that 40% of firearm transactions are private sales.
Canada has two ordinances that I’m particularly fond of. Firstly, anyone seeking a firearms license – mandatory for ownership in that country – must provide three references. Also, licensors are required to inform the spouse and next of kin before granting the license. I cannot help but imagine that such regulations, applied to sellers, would reduce the numbers of gun suicides. You may say it’s not the government’s job to prevent the people from ending their own lives, but nor is it a social good for nearly 20,000 Americans annually to shoot themselves to death. If we as a culture wish to espouse the value of life (as many on the political right vocally do), we should be perturbed by this number and consider whether it’s better to limit the availability of death to persons who could, conceivably, be helped.
At this point it might be worth noting that the likelihood of your being shot and killed by accident was incredibly slight, something on the order of 2.6%. This probably speaks well to the gun safety programs we hear so much about as an all-purpose panacea. Still, if you inadvertently shot yourself while cleaning your rifle or your friend was not aware that his father’s pistol was loaded, you likely died on a day when another person, somewhere in this nation, was also killed in a firearm accident. Between two and three people, in fact, were killed in a firearm accident every day in 2011.
 Credit where credit is due: accidental firearm deaths did not dip below 1,000/year at any time between 1903 and 1997. The low point for accidental gun deaths was 2009, when only 554 individuals died from accidental discharges. At 851 deaths, 2011 was higher, but still historically quite low.
Much has been made of the “gun talk” that parents have been engaging in with peers since the Newton massacre. Gun control campaigns have made this talk a centerpiece of their message, and I think there could be something to this. If one considers the broad social context of this talk – that having an unguarded gun the same house as my child is as unacceptable as, say, smoking in the same room as my child – there could be some intangible effect here. I really have no numbers to back this up, but consider the firearm equivalent of the phase, “Yes, I am a smoker, but of course I’d never smoke indoors or in the presence of your child, just as I wouldn’t with my own.” Probably, it would be, “Yes, we do keep a firearm in the house for protection/recreational hunting/competitions, but we keep it unloaded, secured with a gun lock, in a locked cabinet in a room our child knows never to enter.” This caveat is the social cue that says this is a personal right I have, but I understand it could potentially affect you. I’d hate for the gun talk to be replacement for substantive legislative action, but if it encourages gun owners and gun abstainers to discuss the broader social implications of firearms, I’m all for it.
If it happens you were not among the 60% of American gun deaths who shot yourself, you must be among the 2 fifths that was shot by someone else. If you were the victim of a gun homicide in 2011, there was a 50% chance the weapon was a handgun, and there is a 40% chance your killer secured his or her weapon by illegal means.
Key to the illegal gun market is the purchasing of firearms by legal means and then transferring them to illicit market. In short, it’s about buying guns in more gun-friendly regions (rural and suburban) and moving them into more carefully regulated regions (cities). The National Institute of Justice states that the most effective tool in unspooling this process is trace data. That is a record of each gun sale. This mandated record was a key component of the failed Manchin-Toomey bill in the Senate, and it even included a strict provision that such records could not be used to create a gun registry. It would enable investigators to determine where a gun used in a crime was acquired, identify straw purchasers, and make inroads into disrupting the supply chain. Again, this would not have restricted any gun, accessory, or bullet or infringed on any civil liberty. Nonetheless, it was too much for our Senate to pass.
 Actually, let’s be candid: gun registries are very effective. Canada, Australia, Israel and countless other developed nations have them, but I can see how a second amendment advocate would be concerned about such a prospect. Regardless, a national registry makes illegal trafficking extremely difficult.
So, if you were shot by a criminal with an illegally acquired weapon – and again, there are pretty good odds you were – finding where that weapon came from will be all that more difficult. So, too, will be identifying all those supplied by this illegal gun chain, ensuring that far more will be the victims of gun violence long after your death. And, of course, it’s far too late to help you.
At the low end of likelihood is that you were killed in a mass-shooting. In 2011, there were three such incidents, killing 19 people. Even taking for granted that you were shot and killed in 2011, the odds of your dying in one of these incidents are exceedingly slight – 0.06% - but it should be noted that if you were killed, it was from a round fired from a semi-automatic handgun. It was fired by an individual with a previous conviction for violence or diagnosis for some mental or cognitive disorder. There was a reasonable chance you were shot by an individual – a psychologically unhinged loner with a pistol purchased legally from a sport shop – using a high-capacity magazine.
These horrific mass killings are generally what spur broader conversation about limiting gun rights. This is understandable but unfortunate, given that these incidents are not really indicative of common gun violence. Universal background checks and waiting periods, more comprehensive mental health screening, and the once-bandied high-capacity magazine ban, could have an effect. But since mass shooters tend to stockpile and plan, I have my doubts they would entirely prevent these massacres.
What almost certainly will not work is the NRA’s asinine proposal of arming public servants. In Department of Justice 1993-2011 Report on Firearm Violence: “less than 1% of victims in all nonfatal violent crimes reported using a firearm to defend themselves during the incident.” Well, given that we are the country with the most guns both in number and per capita, this would indicate that surviving a gun attack probably has little correlation with having a gun on your person. Consider, too, that there was an armed law-abiding citizen at the Tucson massacre who admitted that he nearly took a shot at the wrong person. Or consider that there were armed security officials on site at the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings, and that even John Lott Jr., author of concealed-carry manifesto More Guns Less Crime, decries the NRA plan as exorbitantly expensive and ineffective. It is a consummately idiotic proposal by an organization more beholden to gun manufacturers than gun enthusiasts.
As I’ve looked into the details of American gun-death, I’ve also become less enamored of a favorite proposal of the political left: the assault weapon ban. Simply put, assault weapons are just not involved in that many crimes, but the crimes they have been part of – Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Sandy Hook – have burned themselves into our collective memory. Yet if you were shot and killed in 2011, there is a less than 1% chance the weapon was an assault rifle. You were more likely to have been killed with a person’s bare hands. Personally, I don’t understand the civilian use for an assault rifle. I understand they are used for recreational shooting and some hunting, but the ability to fire up to 100 rounds with a single pull of the trigger seems more than a bit excessive. Still, if you’re concerned about saving the most lives via gun regulation, an assault weapon ban doesn’t make much sense.
A limit on magazine size would be more sensible for limiting a mass killer’s capacity to take lives. And so would  stopping this person from accessing a firearm in the first place. In this regard, we can learn from the mass shootings. If we mandated that every gun-seller – be it a licensed merchant or a private citizen – perform a background check and maintain a record of sale, a Jared Loughner or a straw purchaser for an illegal gun circuit would have a much harder time buying a weapon, and a law-abiding, responsible citizen would not. If we made a real effort to flag those with emotional and psychological problems, neither Jamie Holmes nor a clinically depressed, suicidal person would be able to access a weapon.
If we as a culture began acknowledging that - just like
smoking in an enclosed space or driving while intoxicated - gun ownership is a
personal choice that affects an entire community. If we place an onus on all
gun owners – the responsible most and the cavalier few – to ensure they secure
their weapons at home and refuse to sell to those they do not personally know,
we can prevent the thousands stupid, meaningless deaths like yours that occur every year.
I suppose the debate we have every time something violent beyond our comprehension occurs is what negotiation need exist between our rights and our safety. We limit our right to free speech when it comes to threatening the President, of course. This isn’t a matter of repression for its own sake, a tyrannical infringement on the first amendment. It was a pragmatic stricture enacted in 1917, after three presidents had been murdered. It is an effective aid in identifying potential treats to our chief executive’s safety.
Many of us were – and still are – appalled at the abatements on our fourth, fifth, sixth, and eighth amendment rights in the wake the September 11th attacks. We may have detested the way in which the Bush administration pursued its opening gambit in the war on terror, but in retrospect we can acknowledge that these were wartime measures. They weren’t the power-grab of a would-be dictator but a maddening overreach in the face of an insidious threat.
And so we ask now how much of our right to bear arms we’re
willing to sacrifice for a freedom from fear. I’m not a gun owner, but I think
I understand the appeal of the firearm. Being from Kentucky, I shot rifles as a
boy scout and enjoyed it quite a bit. Yet I don’t think the culture of
sportsmanship, the impulse to protect one’s home, a fear of a tyrannical federal government, or the sheer pleasure of firing
a gun justifies the level of death we see in America.
And to clarify, if you were shot and killed in 2011, you were one of 32,163 in America. That’s down since the high point of the mid-1990s, but we could probably do better.