Gun-death rates elsewhere may hold some clues

Friday, November 10, 2017

When I was growing up on a Killough Valley farm in the Ozarks over yonder -- this would have been in the 1950s -- guns were part of our daily lives. My stepfather had a couple of rifles, a shotgun and one handgun. These firearms shared a closet with his Sunday-go-to-meeting suit and what few clothes he owned that stayed on hangers when they weren't being worn.

Everyone we knew -- all of our neighbors, our relatives, people we didn't know well at all -- had guns of some kind. Hunting was not just a sport; it was a way of providing a little variety at mealtime. Varmints of all sorts were fair targets.

In the field just south of the farmhouse where we lived there was a drainage ditch about a hundred yards from the fence line where a groundhog family had taken up residence. We discovered one of the burrows several feet out in the field when the cultivator being pulled by our tractor slammed into the hole, bending the machine's frame to the point it was useless.

My stepfather was not happy. He declared war on the groundhogs, which are very smart -- and wary -- animals. In order to reach a groundhog with the deadly force of a bullet, you had to have something a lot heftier than the arsenal in the closet.

So my stepfather bought a high-powered rifle with a scope and set about adjusting the weapon for a target in the 100-yard range. He would prop the rifle for a steady aim on one of the posts in the fence that went on the south side of the house. He eliminated a few groundhogs, eventually, but he never completely got rid of them. He did keep them from burrowing in the field, however.

Meanwhile, a high school football coach from the St. Louis area bought a small plot of land in the vast wooded hills that stretched between our farm and the river to the north. Using an ancient logging road as access, the coach made a clearing and built a simple cabin. On weekends when he wasn't coaching a football game, the coach would bring his wife and children to the cabin.

It turned out the coach's wife wasn't keen on a cabin in the woods with no running water or no electricity. She told my mother once she hated weekends on that hillside with no neighbors for miles.

Apparently, the coach and his wife had quite a few "discussions" about the cabin, but we knew few details at all.

One Saturday morning, the coach's wife appeared at our front door. She asked my stepfather to take her to town to find the sheriff. She said she had shot and killed her husband after the coach had taken out some of his wrath with his fists.

The upshot of all this was the sheriff listened to the wife's story, talked to the children and concluded the shotgun shooting was self-defense. End of case.

The cabin in the woods, in the following years, fell into ruin, and eventually the property reverted to the previous owner, a big land company based in Chicago. Or somewhere. It wasn't local, that's for sure.

It did not occur to me, at the time of the coach's unfortunate demise, to consider the various uses of firearms or their consequences. Guns were guns. Everyone had guns. Everyone used guns, sometimes for food, sometimes to protect your own life. What never occurred to me was using a firearm for no good reason, like walking into a church and firing randomly until 26 innocent human beings are dead or dying.

As is usual when such events occur, various news outlets soon report on the worldwide statistics regarding deaths by firearms. Each time, I am astonished at how the U.S. gun-death rate compares to the rest of the world.

There are two main comparisons. One is total gun deaths of all the countries in the world. The other is the number of gun deaths in most civilized, industrialized, socialized nations, particularly in North America and Europe.

The U.S. gun-death rate per 100,000 population -- 10.54 -- is as much as 20 times higher than most European countries, for example.

But when compared to all countries of the world, the U.S. gun-death rate is well below the rest. The highest number of deaths each year by guns -- homicides and suicides and "other" -- for each 100,000 of population is 59.13 in Venezuela. El Salvador's rate is 45.6. Swaziland is 37.16. Guatemala is 34.10. Jamaica is 30.72. Colombia is 25.94. Brazil is 21.2.

It is easy to draw some contributing factors from this short list -- government stability, poverty rates, overall crime statistics -- that may or may not point to trends that deserve attention and action.

But a comparison to European countries and how they control firearms is compelling. What are the differences that keep someone in Belgium from stocking up on firearms and ammunition and walking into a crowded concert venue and killing dozens and dozens of people?

A rush to more gun laws -- laws that will surely be ignored by crazy killers whose own lives appear to mean so little -- isn't the answer. But a stampede toward understanding how other countries successfully control the use of firearms certainly appears in order.

Joe Sullivan is the retired editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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