In the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that struck down Chicago's 28-year handgun ban, a new gun ordinance took effect Monday that allows Chicagoans to keep guns in their homes. But will having a handgun at home really make families safer?
The gun lobby is quick to contend that homeowners need guns for self-defense and that where there are more guns there is less crime.
Lost in the legal debate, self-defense arguments and widely-held assumptions, however, are the facts about the risks of keeping guns in the home.
The City of Chicago's new handgun ordinance does its best to address these risks by requiring residents who choose to keep guns at home to implement important safety precautions, especially in homes with children. But expectations for keeping handguns in lock boxes and reporting of lost or stolen guns can only reduce the risks, not eliminate them.
In fact, when 34 experts in injury prevention were asked to rank home health hazards for children, access to firearms in the home was rated as the most significant. Moreover, according to a study published in the Journal of Trauma, guns in the home are eleven times more likely to be used in attempted or completed suicides than to be used to injure or kill in self-defense.
Access to guns makes a huge, and tragic, difference when a young person attempts suicide. A study of firearm suicides among youths found that 82 percent used a firearm belonging to a family member, usually a parent. Of the 177 suicide deaths in Chicago in 2007, according to the Illinois Violent Death Reporting System, 46 were committed with a handgun. As more people choose to keep handguns at home, that number is likely to rise.
Parents who believe that they can keep their guns away from their children are often just plain wrong. In a recent survey, thirty-nine percent of parents who reported that their children did not know the storage location of household guns and 22 percent of parents who reported that their children had never handled a household gun were contradicted by their children's reports. The results were the same even when parents kept guns locked up and discussed gun safety with their children.
Children and adolescents are not the only family members at risk when guns are present in the home. Women can also find themselves in jeopardy, especially in cases of domestic abuse. The Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates that roughly 300,000 women and children experience violence in their homes each year in Illinois. According to one study, abused women are five times more likely to be killed by their abuser if the abuser owns a firearm.
Despite all of this, it may still be easy for some families to believe that more guns equal less crime. In reality, areas with more guns have more burglaries, presumably because guns, like jewelry, cameras, or laptops, are good to steal. It is estimated that almost half a million guns are stolen every year, many of which are subsequently used in crime.
As Dr. David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health points out, "where there are more guns, there is more death - more homicide, more suicide, and more firearm accidents."
Beyond the numbers, the statistics, the studies - and even the facts - lay the tragic, true stories: the 8-year-old girl shot by her 13-year-old brother as they played with guns in the basement of their home; the 16-year-old who committed suicide with his father's gun; the mother of four who was shot and killed by her husband.
We all want to feel safe in our own homes. While a handgun may provide that sense of comfort, it holds more potential for tragedy than security.
Ellen S. Alberding is president of the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation.