Point of View

Easy guns, hard deaths

December 21, 2011 

— Eight people dead in the last two weeks - six in North Carolina, two in Virginia - and all might be alive today if four of them had not had guns and murderous, suicidal impulses.

In two of these cases, in Moore County and in Blacksburg, Va., victims were police officers, one serving a warrant, the other making a traffic stop. Another victim, in Wendell, was a man trying to get out of a relationship with another man. The fourth was the wife of a service member just back from Afghanistan. In all the cases, the shooter killed himself. Investigations become cursory and futile with no one to interview, and even the news stories get buried. The account of the most recent deaths, in Hoke County, was just an item in a column of news briefs.

The murder-suicide is one of the most frustrating crimes there is. The human desire to understand "why?" is thwarted completely when the shooter decides to die as well. The normal run of things, starting with the crime and proceeding to arrest, trial and verdict, is eliminated when there is no living defendant.

The nature of suicide itself makes these occurrences even harder to understand. My own family has suffered the horror of a suicide, and we curse the unknowable nature of the act. When our son, Charlie, died in July 2007, no gun was involved, nor was another person. The inability to get at why this seemed like a reasonable choice for him in the moment will last forever.

Like airplane crashes, suicide is rarely the result of just one factor. Certainly Charlie was depressed, but he had other problems, too. He left a lengthy explanation of why he did it, but no words, no explanation, can remove the awful sadness and continuing tears that followed. Like the mosquitoes that torment me in the summer, flashes of his handsome face or snippets of the jokes he so enjoyed come to me often and unpredictably. This time of year is especially hard.

The recent murder-suicides elevate my thinking to a new level, giving me headaches when I think of this crazy quilt where the stitches holding the pieces together are mental illness and guns rather than thread.

I never have been rabidly anti-gun, and I even competed on my college rifle team and had a father and brothers who were avid hunters. It is hard not to conclude, though, that easily obtainable (especially in Virginia) pistols hold a lot more potential for injury than any public good, no matter what the advocates of gun ownership contend.

I believe the presence of guns in society is more likely to be harmful than beneficial. I cannot take seriously the people who believe that carrying concealed weapons will make all of us safer.

To think that a gun-toting citizen is going to intervene in a life-or-death crisis to save the day is simply wrong. If the two police officers tragically killed, men who carried firearms and had recurrent training on their use, could not defend themselves, how is a lesser individual going to protect someone else?

To me right now, though, the bigger question is that of gun use in suicides. Guns are the most common means of carrying out suicide, especially among adolescents and people over 75. An article in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2005 fixed the daily number of suicides by gun at 46. This is a very large country, but that's almost impossible to believe.

By itself, the tragedy of suicide should be enough to get us all thinking about the presence of guns in society. Harvard researcher David Hemenway has called on health professionals to assess patients' intent and to restrict access to guns. "Change the environment so it's hard for people to do stupid things, and people will do fewer stupid things."

The mixture of guns and suicides is a complicated one, and of course there are no facile answers. I worry that guns make acting without much thought easy, quick and deadly. Someone impulsively wielding a knife or a baseball bat could do some serious damage, but the odds of a bad outcome are a lot higher when it is easy to just point and pull the trigger.

Suicide is deadly in more ways than one, and the benighted families that survive have an unavoidable lifetime of remembering and wondering just what it was that pushed the victim to that final, permanent solution. If controlling guns in society is a way to spare those who suffer like this, then there is no question it is a very good idea.

Bob Kochersberger teaches journalism in the English department at N.C. State University. He can be reached at bobkochs@gmail.com.

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