He Was Pointing His Handgun Into the Air When It “Went Off.”

Screen Shot 2013-02-26 at 10.33.09 AMNow that Adam Lanza has forced a national discussion of gun safety, people are scrambling to get their talking points in order. One pro-gun perspective was that cars kill more people than guns; I addressed that in “What Kills More People in Washington State: Cars or Guns?” because it’s not true: in Washington, gun deaths (including suicide) outnumber vehicle fatalities.

The number of people who succeeded in killing themselves with a gun, I thought, was worth emphasizing because it highlights that guns, though used for target shooting and sport shooting, are terrific for killing things without going through a lot of rigamarole. Handguns especially.

We may tend to think of people who commit suicide as fated, in some way, to end it all. But what the U.S.’s gun ownership experiment (89 firearms per 100 people) teaches us is that we’re not nearly as rational as we like to believe. On any given day, any one of us could sink into a black-dog mood that, with a gun in hand, could prove fatal. No one likes to think that. Everyone is healthy as an ox until they’re sick.

That doesn’t mean we can’t discuss how to keep guns out of the hands of the chronically suicidal, just that that alone isn’t likely to dent the magnitude of the problem. (Especially, as one commenter noted, with the alarming tendency of new medications, even those for asthma or epilepsy, to bring on sudden suicidal ideation.)

Suicide, though, is an extreme case of unreason. Here’s something much more common. Last night on Capitol Hill, a 33-year-old man who’d been drinking got into an argument with his roommate. He told officers “he was pointing his 9mm handgun into the air when it ‘went off.’  The round entered the ceiling of the bedroom. Fortunately, the apartment is on the top floor,” concluded the police report, drily.

“It just went off,” sounds like something you’d say in those circumstances. But it’s often true — people don’t consciously pull a trigger, especially when under the influence of something; it’s more of an instinctual reaction. Last night’s ceiling shooting was classified as domestic violence. End of January, there was another 33-year-old man, and another domestic violence scene, that resulted in a death.

In a USA Today story on the 934 deaths in mass shootings the last seven years — 146 cases where four or more people were killed — another troubling statistic comes to light. Did 71 of those shooters walk into a gun store planning on killing members of their family? In an analysis of 56 mass shootings since 2009, researchers found 57 percent were due to domestic violence. How do you screen a potential gun owner for their tendency toward domestic violence?

The same USA Today story quotes Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, who is pessimistic about better mental healthcare reining in spree killers: “Mass murderers won’t take you up on treatment. They tend to externalize and blame other people for their problems. They blame the spouse, the co-workers, immigrants. They feel persecuted.”

It seem like there might be more of a spectrum in play, when it comes to externalization and blame and a dependence of guns. Listen to the NRA’s leadership

“Latin American drug gangs have invaded every city of significant size in the United States. Phoenix is already one of the kidnapping capitals of the world,” he explains in his latest expression of anguish, an Op-Ed published in the Daily Caller yesterday. […]

“Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Riots. Terrorists. Gangs. Lone criminals,” he continues. “These are perils we are sure to face — not just maybe. It’s not paranoia to buy a gun. It’s survival.”

It’s not paranoia to want to keep guns out of the hands of people with paranoid and disturbed personalities. It’s survival. But for gun safety, the question is how to keep guns out of all of our hands when we’re not ourselves. I don’t know the answer to that, or at least, an answer that preserves the access to guns Americans “enjoy” now. But I do know that that is problem we face, being human and prone to human failures — handguns will continue to magnify the damage of each and every one of these lapses.