Sunday, October 1, 2017

On Point

While gun homicides, especially those carried out with semi-automatic rifles, receive almost all of the press around firearm deaths in the United States, suicide is the main driver of the death toll, with some two-thirds of firearm deaths in the country being self-inflicted. And this isn't a new phenomenon; despite the fact that for many people, especially in urban and denser suburban areas, fears of being shot by a stranger are rife, must gun owners are, in effect, a greater danger to themselves than they are to others.

The Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence released a report recently that dealt with this phenomenon, and NPR brought co-president Kris Brown on the air to talk about it. Weekend All Things Considered host Michel Martin asked what seemed like a straightforward question:

You say that: "The demographics of suicide-related gun violence overall skew heavily towards White men, who make up 79% of all firearms suicide victims, and about 60 of total gun deaths in the U.S." So, first of all, why is it that suicide is so much more prevalent than homicide, and that we don't talk about it that much? Is there a shame factor? Is it - why is that?
After, in effect, saying that Ms. Martin had answered her own question, Ms. Brown then went on to talk about how guns are highly effective tools for suicide. Which I understand to be true. When I was learning about suicide in college (to give you an idea of how long this has been a known issue) one of the points that was made was that the gender disparity in successfully committing suicide is that men tend to use more more effective tools for the task - they leave much less to chance. And the fact that suicide attempts using guns are overwhelmingly more likely to succeed is useful and interesting information. But it was not relevant to the question that was being asked.

After Ms. Brown had used this first question as a platform for a Brady Campaign talking point, Ms. Martin went on to her next question, which was also answered with a talking point, although one more on-topic than the last.

All of this left me with a question: Understanding that Ms. Martin had a reason for allowing Ms. Brown to effectively duck the question, what was it? It seems unlikely that the topic wouldn't turn to talking points about reducing the availability of firearms - the Brady Campaign is about reducing the availability of firearms, not suicide prevention. If 80% of suicides had been carried out by intentional carbon monoxide poisoning, while it likely that Brady Campaign employees would have been moved by that, it would have fallen far about outside of their mandate that they wouldn't have created a report on it and high-level executives wouldn't have made themselves available to the media to talk about it. So if you're dealing with an advocacy organization (and one notices this same trend with politicians) why ask questions that the subject will have to basically ignore in their quest to air their chosen talking points?

The question of why suicide is so common, and so rarely spoken of, is an interesting one; I was somewhat looking forward to the answer. But it seemed of little interest to Ms. Brown. And in dropping the question so quickly, Ms. Martin also seemed to be disinterested. And maybe that's part of the issue. In a four-minute segment, there isn't time for a long dissertation on the topic, and if dropping the topic allows for other talking points to be aired, then the topic is dropped. Ms. Martin's opening question wasn't suited to a firearms violence prevention advocate. It would have been better directed to a suicide prevention advocate. Or, better yet, someone who studies the causes, demographics and attitudes about suicide.

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