This post was written by Kelsey Backus
Guns and the violence associated with them have passed in and out of the news and social media spotlight once again since the December 14th school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. We’ve had our distractions since then, what with the bombing on the Boston Marathon, but even following that event, my newsfeed was full of my more conservative friends boasting things like, “Guns don’t kill people, whackjobs with bombs do.” Crazy statements that weren’t exactly logical but received multiple retweets and favorites anyway.
Nothing about the aftermath of the Newtown massacre seemed logical to me. There was a public outcry for change and it appeared that gun control would finally win over the majority. Instead, the debate headed in the opposite direction. Many states passed laws that were pro-gun. South Dakota, for example, passed a law that would allow school employees to bring guns into classrooms.
Behind this new legislation are a few ideas that are common in right-wing ideology including cliché’s such as “guns don’t kill people—people kill people,” and “more good guys with guns can stop rampaging bad guys,” or “carrying a gun for self-defense makes you safer,” just to name a few. The majority of evidence, however, points to the contrary. (Check out this article by Mother Jones for a brief examination of 10 Pro-Gun Myths: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/01/pro-gun-myths-fact-check). I will review this evidence and propose that it is not just one factor that contributes to gun violence, but many. I am not alone in this argument. However, the abnormally low rate of firearm-related fatalities in South Dakota has not been explored in much detail. What sets South Dakota apart from Wyoming, a state that is demographically similar in terms of both population and geography, and has comparable legislation involving gun control?
Check this out, as I was researching the topic I found this map put together by a group of researchers from Boston (the entire paper is available freely online here: http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1661390).
This map shows you that states with a higher legislative strength score typically have a lower gun mortality rate. Wyoming, indeed, fits this mold. South Dakota, on the other hand, has the lowest possible legislative strength score while maintaining a low gun mortality rate. Both states have incredibly high rates of gun ownership. Wyoming is first in the nation with 62.8% of households owning a gun while South Dakota is not far behind at fourth with 59.9%.
Simply owning a gun has been linked to higher rates of homicide, accidental death, and suicide. In 2010, 16,259 people were victims of homicide and 68% of those involved firearms. In that same year, 51% of 38,364 suicides were by firearms. According to the Firearm and Injury Center at Penn, it is estimated that for every two firearm deaths there are five nonfatal firearm injuries. This results in medical costs of $112 million and $599 million, respectively, not including the work loss costs, estimated at $40.5 billion. Loss of life and financial costs are enormous burdens placed on this country by firearms.
In addition to strength of gun legislation and rates of gun ownership, other factors have been found to contribute to fatal gun violence. Contrary to popular belief, however, population density, mental illness, stress levels, substance abuse, and unemployment don’t appear to have anything to do with it. Gun violence is associated with hither levels of poverty and lower levels of college graduates and happiness. Though mental health itself does not appear to contribute to rates of gun violence, access to mental health resources and treatment and mental health utilization does. These factors keep the depression status and suicide rates low. It is here that South Dakota thrives. A 2007 report released by Mental Health America has South Dakota as the healthiest state in terms of depression status (http://www.nmha.org/files/Ranking_Americas_Mental_Health.pdf).
Now what do we do? Addressing this issue requires a multifaceted approach. The first of which would be to increase access to higher education. Through needs-based scholarships, children born into poverty may be able to attend college, therefore decreasing their chances of living in a life of poverty or committing suicide. Scholarships for students going into mental health fields would be especially important as this could eventually increase the mental health resources made available in the state. The small amount of post-secondary schools in Wyoming could present a problem. Increasing tuition reciprocity programs with other states would allow students from Wyoming to attend schools out-of-state for the same tuition that in-state students pay. This increases their options and their chances of getting in to a good institution. By decreasing firearm-related incidents, more money could be spent in these scholarship and other post-secondary education programs as money would not be spent on medical and work loss costs associated with firearm incidents.
Finally, as Fleegler and colleagues discovered in their 2013 study of gun legislation and gun violence, increasing the strength of gun-related legislation through implementing background checks for all gun purchases, not just those from federally licensed dealers would be a step towards decreasing the prevalence of gun ownership. This would be the most important step toward reducing firearm-related homicides and suicides. However, to suggest that increasing the strength of gun legislation would be an automatic solution, especially in a state in which guns and hunting are a big part of life and state economy, would be a mistake. I suggest that we continue to examine the differences between South Dakota and Wyoming associated with gun-related fatalities in order to provide us with a more thorough solution in the future. The sooner a solution comes to pass and is accepted nation-wide, the sooner thousands and thousands of lives lost annually in firearm-related fatalities may be saved.