Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was in Seattle last week with her message that we must attempt to pass lukewarm gun restrictions because guns in the hands of the wrong people pose an intolerable threat to women.
Giffords, who sustained a tragic and permanently debilitating head wound from a gunshot by a male assailant during a 2011 Arizona campaign appearance, told a group of mostly women at the Washington Athletic Club, "Dangerous people with guns are a threat to women. Abusers with guns, criminals with guns make this a women's issue."
And while such statements tug at heartstrings and perhaps even melt the steely resolve many in the West have against any form of gun control, it is a notion, at its core, that is both wrongheaded and contrary to most of the facts we currently know about gun casualties in both the U.S. and Washington state.
That's because gun violence in America is almost exclusively a problem of men and boys, not women. That's a reality that's illustrated every day across our land and one that was punctuated in blood last week in Washington with the school shooting by Jaylen Fryberg, a teenage boy and high school freshman.
The overwhelming brunt of gun violence in America is borne by men and boys. Consider:
- 97% of all gun casualties -- that's 33,000 deaths and 84,000 injuries -- in the U.S. involve a male as either the shooter or victim
- 95% of all gun-inflicted homicides in the U.S. involve a male
- 98% of all school shooters in the U.S. are male
- 86% of all gun-inflicted suicides in the U.S. are male
- American males over the age of 13 have a greater chance of dying from a gunshot than they do from prostate cancer
Solve the male-centric problem of gun violence and you will almost certainly alleviate any specter of gun danger that currently looms over women.
Perhaps Giffords, her retired astronaut husband Mark Kelly and their non-profit Americans for Responsible Solutions mean well. Or perhaps they're just part of an entrenched gun culture and gun industry that offers non-effective, watered-down proposals that give citizens the illusion that something's actually being done about our nation's sordid gun problem. But in reality, they're just nibbling around the edges. Virtually no one in power is addressing America's gun crisis head-on, nor is anyone making hard choices about guns nor asking their constituents to do some of the heavy lifting that will be required to turn the tide on gun violence.
When it comes to guns, I have no doubt that Giffords has a visceral understanding of the damage they can do. I know this because I, too, share that understanding. At the age of 13, I was deer hunting with my father and two brothers in the remote, rugged mountains of Northeastern Nevada when I accidentally shot myself in the foot with a high-powered deer rifle. A one-third-ounce bullet exited the barrel of my 30-.30 Winchester, spinning at 5,000 revolutions per second and traveling at about 2,300 mph, or roughly three times the speed of sound. It exploded into my foot and vaporized all bone, tissue, nerves and tendons in its path. It entered the diameter of a pencil eraser and exited the diameter of a half dollar. The doctors told me that a quarter inch to the right and a major tendon in my foot would've been severed, requiring most of the appendage to be amputated. Three-quarters of an inch to the left, and I would've missed entirely. After the gunshot, I lay on a ridge on the flank of a 10,000-foot peak for three hours entombed by a kind of pain that defies comprehension by nearly all people. It would be another five hours after that before I could be extracted from the wilderness and transported by four-wheel drive to the nearest hospital, which was 110 miles away in Idaho. There wasn't so much as an aspirin or shot of whiskey in sight. It's a trauma that has never fully left me. I am reminded of it each morning when I put on my socks and shoes. And whenever there is a shooting that makes the news -- and that's almost daily -- I am visited by the remembrance of a pain that has no name.
I lived at the time in Winnemucca, Nev., a small railroad, ranching and mining town in the north-central part of the state. It wasn't unusual that I'd been toting such a powerful gun only days after my 13th birthday. Gun culture and its historical roots run deep in that part of Nevada and much of the West. Nor was it unusual that I'd been shot. During the three years I lived in Winnemucca, five of my classmates -- all teen boys -- had also been shot. All were accidents. Three were killed, one was permanently brain damaged and another severely wounded in the neck and torso. All things considered, I got off the easiest.
But if you were a boy in Winnemucca, the statistics were grim. There were about 300 boys in grades 6 through 12. That meant in that town, as a teen boy, you had about a 1-in-50 chance of getting shot. Those are practically Russian roulette numbers that should've raised alarm and even panic among the town's parents, health workers, law enforcement officials and politicians. But they didn't then. And they don't now. Small towns in the Mountain West are some of the most dangerous places on earth in terms of gun tragedies. These seemingly bucolic communities have gun casualty rates that are shockingly high -- often 3 to 20 times the national average. And, of course, they are casualties -- mostly in the form of accidents and suicides -- that involve almost exclusively men and boys.
By all accounts Jaylen Fryberg was a prince of a guy. Popular. Gregarious. Good looking. Athletic. Smart.
The early accounts of him remind me of another teen boy I once knew. His name was Bryan Mooney-Goebel. He was my son's best friend in a well-manicured suburb of San Diego. His mother and my wife had worked together. I'd known him from the day he was born. He, too, was popular, gregarious, good looking, athletic, smart. And like Fryberg he'd had trouble with a girl and had been cut from the football team. Not the end of the world, but for the not-yet-fully developed mind of a teen boy, it perhaps seemed so. One day in September, four years ago, 15-year-old Bryan clambered into the attic and found the rifle his father had carefully and purposely hidden. His mother returned home from a shopping errand and was preparing to decorate the home for that evening's birthday party for Bryan's sister, who'd just turned 10. She soon noticed that the house was eerily quiet, and after some investigation, found in the attic the horror no mother should ever have to encounter. Once again, a bullet had caused a pain without description -- one that has no beginning, middle or end. There may be things in this world that exceed the grief of a mother who finds her son dead of a gunshot in a pool of blood. I have just not encountered any.
I did not know Jaylen Fryberg. But I did know Bryan. And I can tell you he was a wonderful kid. A joy to be around. I know with near certitude that had there not been an unsecured gun in his house, he would've survived the seeming turbulence of his youth. He would've gone on to college, likely have married, had kids of his own, held a job and contributed to his community. He would've made a fine husband, colleague, son, brother, friend. He would've mattered. And made a difference. I would've been proud to tell anyone who'd listen that I knew him. And loved him. But in spite of my own experience with guns -- my own youthful brushes with tragedy -- I never once suspected the tragedy that lay in wait for him just over the horizon. I suspect that neither did Jaylen's family and friends.
When it comes to our gun epidemic, there is much tragedy to go around. I do not mean to imply that men and boys have a monopoly on such a thing. They don't. Nor do I mean to imply that women aren't stalked by an ever-present gun menace. They are. One woman's death or injury by gunshot in this country is one too many. It's just that data should be paramount in our discussions about the gun epidemic. And the data tells a much different story than the one told by Giffords, Kelly & Co.
In 2012, the most-recent year the Centers for Disease Control can provide data regarding gun incidents, there were 679 gun deaths in the state of Washington. 584, or 86% were male. 97, or 14% were female. Of the female deaths, 63 were suicides, 34 homicides. Of the female homicides, we can assume that at least 90%, or about 30 in total, were committed by a male. (And we are forced to assume because Washington, like 33 other states, doesn't provide the federal government with precise statistics to feed into its national violent death database.) The bottom line is that women who were killed by men with guns numbered just a little over 4% of all people in the state who were killed by gunshots. Thus, laws aimed at "dangerous people with guns (who) are a threat to women" would do almost nothing to address the bulk of the problem.
So what is to be done? I certainly don't purport to have all the answers. But I do believe in first-things-first. I believe in data. I believe in science. If politicians and purported do-gooders were serious about doing something to reduce the gun casualties in the U.S., they'd start at the beginning. And that means they'd round up all the facts and all the data for every single gun-related incident that results in an injury or death in the United States. Currently, the CDC gathers data so scant it would be laughable were the subject matter not so grave. The institution collects seven data points for every gun incident -- year, sex, state, county, ethnicity, age and intent (homicide, suicide, legal intervention or accident). In the age of big data, such an effort is woeful -- negligent even. Furthermore, the data trickles to the public and researchers. It is almost 2015, and the most recent gun data available is from 2012. By contrast, whenever a plane crashes in the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board scramble to quickly gather millions of data points related to the disaster. The differing approaches tell us everything we need to know as to why when it comes to aviation safety, America is a world leader, and when it comes to gun safety, we're at the absolute bottom of the heap. Without a robust, real-time gun casualty database, we will likely never be able to extricate ourselves from the grips of our gun epidemic.
In addition to developing a meaningful gun database, we must also recognize the male-centric nature of gun violence in America. At the very least, we must understand that teen boys are attracted to guns like magnets to metal. Preferably there should be no guns in a house with boys. For parents who still insist on owning guns, weapons should be stored off-site in a locker at a gun range. Failing that, it should be mandatory that any gun kept in a house also inhabited by children and/or teens should be equipped with a trigger lock and kept in a gun safe.
The poet John Donne wrote in the 17th century that we should "not send to know for whom the bells toll, they toll for thee." He wrote that should just one soul be extinguished, the whole of the community, the whole of the country, the whole of the continent would be diminished -- lessened. Of course, Donne's words are as true today as they were in the 1600s. They are especially poignant against the backdrop of America's raging gun epidemic, which claims the young, who still have so much to offer, in such disproportionate numbers. Jaylen Fryberg is dead. As is Bryan Mooney-Gobel. Nothing will bring them back. So the bells continue to toll. And we are all diminished.
Craig K. Collins is author of the new memoir Thunder in the Mountains: A Portrait of American Gun Culture (Lyons Press). He serves as founder and Executive Director of The Center for Gun Analytics, a non-profit that advocates for leveraging technology and big data to find insights and solutions to America's gun epidemic. His website is here.