Coloradans are four times more likely to die of suicide by gun than homicide by gun.
“There’s far greater likelihood that a gun in the home will be used to kill somebody in the home, despite the perception … that you need guns for protection,” said Dr. Carol Runyan, a public health professor at the University of Colorado.
According to the state health department, Colorado recorded 571 firearms-related deaths in 2011. Of those, 442 were from suicide. Another 105 were homicides. The remaining 11 were ruled as accidents.
“The vast majority of homicides are by people who know you. They’re not by strangers,” said Runyan. “And, horrific as the incidents were in Columbine, in the Aurora theater shooting, in Newtown, Connecticut – those are extremely rare.”
When public health professionals focus on gun violence, they look for strategies that will reduce the highest number of deaths. That’s why they are more concerned with suicide, accidents, and violence in the home than murder by strangers.
Researchers say gun deaths can be reduced by limiting access to guns by children or people who are suicidal, and by building safer firearms. It’s the same concept as improving safety in automobiles.
“It’s not about taking away things that people like to have,” Runyan explained. “It’s about making those products safer.”
Some skeptics say restricting gun access will not prevent suicide. Dr. Marian Betz, a researcher and emergency doctor at the University of Colorado Hospital, says that’s not the case.
“A majority of people who attempt suicide, and don’t die, don’t go on to kill themselves in the future,” said Betz. “I think we really need to stop looking at suicide as this inevitable thing … We wouldn’t treat people with cancer that way and say, ‘Well, they’re just going to die.”
The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a gun manufacturers’ trade association located in Newtown, Conn., advises on its website that every owner of a firearm should “take steps to prevent firearm accidents, theft and misuse.” The company further stresses that guns should never be kept loaded. That’s a suggestion rejected by some owners who say firearms used for protection should be ready to fire.
Another simple safety step is a $10 gun lock, currently sold with new firearms, and available free for older guns from some police departments. The locks are provided under a program called Project ChildSafe. The NSSF recently dedicated more money to the program, which also distributes information about keeping guns away out of hands of children.
In Colorado, the Lakewood Police Department has been distributing free locks through the program for almost nine years. “It’s a needed thing if it saves one kid, if it keeps somebody from committing suicide,” said Agent Mark Mansanares of the department’s crime prevention unit.
Researcher Runyan also advocates designing guns that will physically permit only the owner or other pre-approved user to fire them. Such firearms could offer the sense of protection many gun owners want, while also helping prevent avoidable deaths, she said.
However, Hollywood’s James Bond seems to be the only one with such a so-called “smart gun” right now. In the movie Skyfall, Bond’s “smart gun” scans for his unique grip before it can fire – and saves him when an enemy tries to use the gun against him.
Other gun designs being developed will fire only if a user is wearing a special ring or watch that activates the firearm through radio transmission or magnets. One gun manufactured by Armatix in Germany requires a special watch and a PIN number. The weapon deactivates if it’s picked up by someone not wearing the watch.
The federal government funded research into smart guns more than a decade ago, but such weapons are still not available in the United States, the manufacturers’ association said. NSSF Senior Vice President Lawrence Keane estimated the cost of such a firearm at upwards of $1,000 – far more than standard guns.
Keane said manufacturers support development of identification technology, but oppose any law requiring it. Such legislation has been passed in New Jersey and is being debated in California.
Colorado Public News contacted 10 gun shops around the state seeking comment on whether customers want locks or biometric technology. All declined to weigh in.
Biomac Systems is a Los Angeles company working on smart gun technology, including developing firearms that can have multiple authorized users, said company communications director David Shugarts.
Shugarts said that while smart guns may not yet be 100 percent responsive, biometric technology can make Americans’ gun habits less dangerous. He cited a study in 2000 that found 43 percent of gun owners living with children kept an unlocked gun in the house. In another study, households with teens with major depression were advised to remove guns from the house. Still, 73 percent kept their guns.
Shugarts, along with many Colorado public health experts, concur that achieving safer guns is a long-term process. Again using the safe automobile comparison, they note that seat belts and airbags spawned decades of debate before they were mandated.
Betz and Shugarts share the hope that gun owners and sellers don’t want people to kill themselves with guns, or have anyone accidentally killed by a gun.
“If you’re going to own a gun,” said Betz, “wouldn’t you want it to be a gun that your child can’t fire?”