Originally published on January 4, 2013 by the Chicago Tribune
My friend Rosa Montenegro was a political refugee who fled Chile with her husband, Vicente, and their lovely children, Vicki and Paola. Vicente would join my friends and me in California to hunt wild boar, duck and quail. Rosa, though, was totally uninterested in “blood sport .” While we hunted, she tended to the children.
Intellectuals in their home country, they found life difficult in Los Angeles. Vicente was an assistant in a film lab. Rosa worked on a food truck. One day, missing her family, despondent about having just lost her job, and seeing no way out, Rosa came home, picked up Vicente’s rifle and killed both children and then herself.
It is a day I will never forget.
The death of innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School prompted well-deserved outrage and calls for strict gun laws. The arguments have gone over the familiar territory about violence in America. Yet there has been little mention about the most frequent victims of America’s love affair with firearms — gun owners and their families.
America had more than 11,000 firearms-related homicides in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But here’s what’s brushed aside: In 2011, America had more than 19,000 suicides committed by firearms, according to the CDC.
While the National Rifle Association cites gun ownership as critical to family protection, it appears that nothing could be further from the truth.
“Although most gun owners reportedly keep a firearm in their home for ‘protection’ or 'self-defense,’ 83 percent of gun-related deaths in these homes are the result of a suicide, often by someone other than the gun owner,” says the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The New England Journal of Medicine and the Annals of Emergency Medicine have documented that suicide, not cancer or a heart attack, is the leading cause of death among people who bought a gun within the past year. The risk of dying from a gun is 17 times greater if one lives in a gun-owning household.
Some might dismiss this argument out of the belief that adults have the right to take their own lives. But there is also a risk to children. The firearm-suicide rate for U.S. children is 10 times higher than the firearm-suicide rate of the children of all other nations in the world combined, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Do guns provide protection? Men who live in gun-holding households are twice as likely to be victims of homicide, women three times as likely, as people who don’t live in households with guns. U.S. children make up 86 to 89 percent of all the world’s children under 15 years of age who are killed by a gun, according to the Children’s Defense Fund and the Centers for Disease Control. Yes, even with conflicts in such places as Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.
It is possible that Rosa would have killed herself some other way if she didn’t have access to a gun — people do. But she might have taken the time to reconsider, to reach out to friends. Without the gun, she most surely wouldn’t have had the means to impose the death sentence on her children.
I used to be a gun owner. I understand the concerns that make our nation the No. 1 gun-owning nation in the world. We are a nation in fear — of economic insecurity, of urban violence, of impending chaos. How else could one explain the exponential increase in gun ownership and sales this last decade?
Yet the reality is that the greatest danger we and our families face is the guns whose ownership we so fiercely defend. It’s long past time for a change.