The Fear of Guns Sells Guns

So does the fear of gun control. We've seen these two ironic and incredibly dangerous facts in action this week.

An open bullet. The grains are smokeless powder. (Reuters)

Why isn't it surprising that sales of firearms and ammunition, and applications for permits, have soared nationally after the Aurora, Colorado, mass killing last week? The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports one woman's reaction:

"If you can't walk into a movie theater and feel safe ..." she said, trailing off as she contemplated the awful prospect. "I'm a widow. I just felt I needed protection," said the 67-year-old, as she shopped for a gun at Stoddard's Range and Guns in Douglasville.

Gun stores across metro Atlanta -- and the nation -- reported a surge in firearm sales following the mass shooting Friday that killed 12 people and injured dozens of others. Some gun buyers said they felt an urgent need to better protect themselves and their loved ones. Others said they wanted to take action before any movement emerged to increase restrictions on gun ownership.

Widows packing widowmakers might seem a bizarre reaction to an especially senseless crime. A veteran Chicago policeman argues in the New York Times:

Even a highly trained, armed police officer would have been caught off guard. Try adding a bunch of untrained, armed civilians into the mix -- this type of intervention could have made things much worse.

The more reasonable and necessary limits on firearms technology appear to opponents of gun violence, the more handguns and ammunition will be purchased. Sadly, it's notorious among epidemiologists that having a gun at home significantly increases the risk of suicide to an extent that swamps its value in personal and family protection. As the New England Journal of Medicine noted in 2008:

In 2005, the most recent year for which mortality data are available, suicide was the second-leading cause of death among Americans 40 years of age or younger. Among Americans of all ages, more than half of all suicides are gun suicides. In 2005, an average of 46 Americans per day committed suicide with a firearm, accounting for 53% of all completed suicides. Gun suicide during this period accounted for 40% more deaths than gun homicide.

Yet trying to screen out mentally disturbed people can have unintended consequences. The New Jersey State Police application for prospective firearms purchases asks:

Have you ever been attended, treated or observed by any doctor or psychiatrist or at any hospital or mental institution on an inpatient or outpatient basis for any mental or psychiatric condition? If yes, give the name and location of the doctor, psychiatrist, hospital or institution and the date(s) of such occurrence.

This seems like a reasonable precaution, but what if it deters a mentally ill person -- especially a paranoid schizophrenic -- from seeking medical help lest they lose not only Second Amendment rights but perhaps others? Technically the question may not include outpatient visits to psychiatrists' offices, but since the majority of doctors have hospital credentials, it seems to apply to all psychiatric treatment.

Gun violence seems to be in a hopeless spiral. The greater the outrage, the more firearms enthusiasts fear new legislation going beyond the immediate issue (like jumbo ammunition magazines), the more weapons and ammunition are stockpiled. I wrote about this effect last year. Often it's best to let a crisis go to waste.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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