Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Gun math adds up to a deadly sum

The sheriff was right. It was just one of those things that happens.

It happened last week in the Pinellas County town of East Lake. Two-year-old Kaleb Ahles, left alone for a few moments in the family car, found his father’s .380-caliber handgun in the glove compartment. The toddler managed to shoot himself in the chest. It was fatal.

“It’s just one of those things that happens where everything happens the wrong way,” Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told the Tampa Bay Times.

Except that with so many guns in our midst, gun tragedies become a matter of the math. With 310 million firearms owned by private citizens in the United States, the probabilities become unavoidable. Things are bound to go the wrong way.

So we have a toddler who kills himself in Pinellas County a few weeks after a 2-year-old in Idaho fishes his mother’s 9 mm pistol out of her specially designed handbag, Gun Tote’n Mamas (“Finally, concealed carry handbags with fashion, utility and uniquely affordable!”) and shoots his mother, a nuclear scientist, in the head as they’re waiting in the checkout line. It was fatal.

They’re shocking, these stories about children involved in fatal gun incidents, but statistically they’re unavoidable. With so many guns in so many homes, tragic combinations of curious children and irresponsible or forgetful or unlucky gun-owning parents become a recurring mathematical certainty. So guns kill 10 to 12 children and teens each day in the U.S.

Add 310 million guns to our national stew of curious toddlers, angry teenagers, suicidal depressives, jealous drunks, abusive spouses, paranoid schizophrenics, teenagers with impulse control issues, criminals, gang-bangers, and post traumatic stress-afflicted vets, and the U.S. comes up with 32,000-plus firearm deaths a year.

It’s pure math. The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control calculated in 2011 that Americans die from firearm injuries at a rate of 10.38 for every 100,000 residents. That compares to less gun-laden places like the United Kingdom, where the death rate was 0.23 per 100,000.

We can’t escape the law of probabilities. The more guns, the more killing. In 2009, the Congressional Research Service estimated that civilians in the U.S. own 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles, and 86 million shotguns. With more in some states than others. The Harvard Injury Control Research Center reports that “homicide rates among children, and among women and men of all ages, are higher in states where more households have guns.”

The Harvard study found: “Analyses that controlled for several measures of resource deprivation, urbanization, aggravated assault, robbery, unemployment and alcohol consumption found that states with higher rates of household firearm ownership had significantly higher homicide victimization rates for children, and for women and men. In these analyses, states within the highest quartile of firearm prevalence had firearm homicide rates 114 percent higher than states within the lowest quartile of firearm prevalence. Overall homicide rates were 60 percent higher.”

More guns. More killings. It’s a reasonable assumption borne out by peer-reviewed science and rejected by our politicians. Last week, in the Florida House of Representatives, the Criminal Justice Subcommittee approved a bill that would rid Florida of gun bans at state colleges and universities.

The bill comes out of some notion that students and campus employees with concealed, licensed weapons could have stopped a homicidal madman like Myron May, who wounded two students and a library worker at Florida State University in November before he was killed by police.

The math suggests that would be unlikely. Instead, more guns on campus would more likely contribute to other kinds of gun deaths. A 2007 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found: “Nearly half of America’s 5.4 million full-time college students abuse drugs or drink alcohol on binges at least once a month.” Add guns to that formula and the math gets volatile.

Consider who’ll be toting firearms on campus. A 2002 study by the Harvard School of Public Health, published in the Journal of American College Health, found: “Students with guns were more likely to be male, white, live in a fraternity, live off campus, binge drink, drive after drinking and be injured severely enough to require medical attention. Students with guns at college are more likely to engage in alcohol-related behaviors that put themselves and others at risk of injury.”

The numbers indicate that suicide by firearms ought to be a major concern. Another Harvard study found that 24 percent of college students thought about attempting suicide while 5 percent had actually attempted to kill themselves. Here’s where guns make a huge, deadly difference. Suicide attempts by firearms are successful 90 percent of time, the study noted. Attempted suicide by drug overdose only works 3 percent of the time.

Add more guns to campuses and the probabilities becomes deadly. Until college firearms tragedies become, as they say up Pinellas County, “Just one of those things that happens.”