Monday, June 30, 2008

Right to Keep and Bear Arms: Part II

How does the ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller (PDF, 172 pages), issued June 26, 2008, by the U.S. Supreme Court, involve senior citizens?

Already, much commentary has analyzed the decision, including a prior posting on this Blog, "Right to Keep and Bear Arms: Part I", by Joshua G. Prince.

One media source alone -- National Public Radio -- has posted nine articles in three days since the decision's issuance:

I found the last article in this listing -- "D.C. Gun Ban Overturned; What's Next?", by Bill Chappell -- grounded and practical. Primary source documents regarding Heller are available on the Supreme Court of the United States Wiki.

Second Amendment rights are important to senior citizens, because gun ownership by that group appears common. For example, a 2001 survey in Marin Co., CA reported that about 21% of seniors in a household there had a gun. A 2005 Gallup Poll that indicated that about one-third of older Americans possess guns.
Americans aged 18 to 29 are slightly less likely than those who are older to be gun owners.

Only one in five 18- to 29-year-olds (21%) say they own a gun, while 32% of 30- to 49-year-olds and 31% of those aged 50 and older report ownership.
That Poll addressed the purposes -- hunting, target shooting, or self-protection -- for the guns owned:
Male gun owners are more likely than female owners to say they use a gun for hunting (63% to 45%, respectively) or for target shooting (68% to 59%), while female owners are slightly more likely than male gun owners to use a gun for protection (74% to 63%, respectively). * * *

There are essentially no differences between younger and older gun owners who use their guns for crime protection (67% among 18- to 49-year-olds and 64% of those aged 50 and older). * * *

Advocates of gun ownership argue that seniors gain a sense of well-being and safety because guns provide self-protection.

An article by Joe Guillen, published June 19, 2007,
by The Plain Dealer (Cleveland,OH) asserted "Seniors feel safer when they carry [a] gun."

Jeff Garvas, president of Ohioans for Concealed Carry, said seniors should consider carrying a gun because criminals can interpret their physical weakness as an opportunity.

John R. Lott, author of the book More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun-Control Laws, said guns are a safer method of self-defense for seniors because they may run slower or have less strength.

But gun-control advocates say society is safer with fewer armed citizens, not more. Senior citizens are no more at risk of being attacked than any other demographic group, said Toby Hoover, executive director of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence. * * *

[Russ] Geis, of Stark County, isn't taking any chances. He refuses to rely on the habits of criminals and even law enforcement for his personal protection. He would rather count on his gun.

"That's the last thing a criminal wants to see," he said.
The collective effectiveness of such a deterrent resource is placed in question by study results recently released, according to an article, "Prof Says D.C. Handgun Ban Didn’t Affect Number of Murders", by Debra Cassens Weiss, posted on the ABA Journal on June 30, 2008:
A Florida State professor says the handgun ban in the District of Columbia did not affect the murder rate.

Gun control advocates argue handgun bans are needed to keep the weapons out of criminals’ hands. Gun control opponents, on the other hand, say the bans take guns away from law-abiding citizens who can use the weapons to deter crime.

Neither side is right, according to a study by Gary Kleck of Florida State’s College of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Kleck concludes in an interview with the New York Times that “the law itself had no effect one way or the other.” * * *
On the other hand, clearly handguns are a risk factor for
suicide by elderly folks. And suicide rates for the elderly are higher than the general population. See: EE&F Law Blog posting "PA Aging Department Encourages Suicide Awareness" (09/13/06).

Generally, there are more deaths from handgun suicides than from handgun murders, according to a 1997 analysis of statistics. An article entitled "Mortal Allies: Guns and Suicide", by Matthew Miller, published in the Harvard Public Health Review (Summer, 2002), concluded:

A growing body of evidence indicates that the means at hand matter: where there are more guns, more people are taking their own lives.

For example, American case-control studies all find that a gun in the home is a strong risk factor for suicide, not only for the gun owner, but for other household members as well.

The risk of suicide associated with the presence of a firearm in the home is large (an increase of two- to five-fold in most studies), especially when the gun is a handgun or is stored loaded or unlocked.

See also: "Handguns In Home Boost Suicide Risk Among Elderly" (07/01/02), posted by the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Joan Arehart-Treichel noted in her article entitled "Several Factors Mitigate Seniors’ High Suicide Risk" (08/16/02), posted by Psychiatric News (Vol. 37, No. 16), that the increased risk of suicide posed by a firearm in a home can be offset by other factors.

The presence of a firearm in the home was found to be associated with an increased risk of suicide, even after controlling for psychiatric illness.

Elevated risk was accounted for by access to handguns rather than to long guns and was more pronounced in men than in women.

However, it is probably not the presence of a firearm in the home per se that constitutes a risk factor for senior suicides, but rather the recent purchase of a firearm, Conwell and his team contended. The reason, they explained in their study report, is that firearm suicide rates for the elderly have declined markedly in states that have instituted waiting periods or background checks, or both, for handgun purchases.

Yet just as depression, poor sleep quality, limited social support, and the recent purchase of a handgun may put seniors at risk of suicide, social support and religious beliefs may help protect them against it. * * *

On July 28, 2003, the U.S. Senate Committee on Aging heard testimony about suicide and seniors. A presentation by Donna Cohen, Ph.D., entitled "Depression and Violent Deaths in Older Americans: An Emergent Public Mental Health Challenge" (PDF, 10 pages), indicated that firearms are used for suicide 72% by persons over 65, versus 57% by persons of the general population.

The Physicians for Social Responsibility posted an article entitled "Firearms and Suicide" (PDF, 2 pages) that advocated limiting access to firearms as a means of reducing suicide rates. See also: MCES Quest Newsletter (March 2006) (PDF, 12 pages) regarding suicide prevention generally.

In their recently published book, Alive & Kicking, Kenney F. Hegland and Robert Fleming addressed some of these issues in their commentary, "Self-Abuse: Vegas, Booze, and the Question of Guns":

Handguns, not rifles, are the weapon of choice in elderly suicides. Guns don't require much planning: they are quick, easy, and the stuff of momentary despair.

Further, guns in the house, at the time of a heated argument, often prove lethal. * * * The lurking threat of domestic violence suggests that the presence of weapons is a very bad idea.

But what about self-defense? The presence of guns, rather than affording protection, may make things worse. With guns drawn, stakes are definitely raised and home invaders may simply disarm, and then shoot, their victim.

Gun critics, however, overlook the peace of mind having a gun may bring. An elderly couple with a gun in their home may not be, in fact, safer and, in fact, statistically may be less safe. However, they feel safer and live less fearful lives. As home invasions and suicides are rare, the psychic benefits of gun ownership may outweigh the risks. * * *

A recent study occurred in Pennsylvania that considered these matters using data from the Philadelphia area. The study, entitled "Firearms and Violence: Issues for Elder Health and Well-Being in Southeastern Pennsylvania" (2005), was conducted by Rose Cheney Ph.D., Douglas J. Wiebe Ph.D., Pamela Errico B.A., & Therese S. Richmond Ph.D., CRNP, FAAN, for the Firearm & Injury Center at the University of Pennsylvania. This research was presented in 2005 & 2006 to various groups.

The results were reported & summarized in a comprehensive graphic poster, available online, which included their conclusions:
  • Firearm issues are important to the health and well-being of the elderly and are not limited to urban youth.
  • Issues surrounding firearms and violence are complex. They cross individuals, households, and communities; risks and protection; feedback, interaction and anticipation.
  • Information on firearms and the elderly is limited. Assessments on possible firearm risks should be collected or included in assessments of elderly health and safety.
  • While for some elderly, firearms may serve a protective function, assessment of possible risks to self and others should be part of a safety assessments.
Tomorrow, we will conclude this three-part series with consideration of guns in nursing homes.

Update: 06/30/08 @ 7:30 pm:

One hour ago, Comcast posted an article entitled "Surprising fact: Half of gun deaths are suicides" (06/30/08) by Mike Stobbe, an Associated Press Medical Writer. The article was posted also by Yahoo, Fox News, MSNBC, and many newspapers.

The article contemplated the effects of the Heller decision on public health isssues, and highlighted a prevailing use of handguns to commit suicide:

The Supreme Court's landmark ruling on gun ownership last week focused on citizens' ability to defend themselves from intruders in their homes. But research shows that surprisingly often, gun owners use the weapons on themselves.

Suicides accounted for 55 percent of the nation's nearly 31,000 firearm deaths in 2005, the most recent year for which statistics are available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There was nothing unique about that year — gun-related suicides have outnumbered firearm homicides and accidents for 20 of the last 25 years. In 2005, homicides accounted for 40 percent of gun deaths. Accidents accounted for 3 percent. The remaining 2 percent included legal killings, such as when police do the shooting, and cases that involve undetermined intent.

Public-health researchers have concluded that in homes where guns are present, the likelihood that someone in the home will die from suicide or homicide is much greater. * * *

The high court's majority opinion made no mention of suicide. But in a dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer used the word 14 times in voicing concern about the impact of striking down the handgun ban.

"If a resident has a handgun in the home that he can use for self-defense, then he has a handgun in the home that he can use to commit suicide or engage in acts of domestic violence," Breyer wrote. * * *
The article noted the availability online of statistics from the Centers for Disease Control about gun injury statistics.

The article validates many of the points that I made above, using different sources.

Update: July 01, 2008:

For Part III of this Series, see:
"Right to Keep and Bear Arms: Part III" (07/01/08).