Op-ed of the day: a depression sufferer begs, “Please take my gun away”

An op-ed in today’s New York Times by a former political speechwriter named Wendy Button takes on a subject I’ve pondered myself: the dangers guns pose to people who suffer from depression. Button is a woman who lives alone, and after a frightening break-in attempt, she considered buying a gun for protection. What stopped her is her own history of depression. She writes that, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 38,364 Americans committed suicide in 2010, and over half of them chose guns as their method.

Like Button, I am a woman who lives alone. Moreover, I live in an urban area, in an apartment complex where there have been break-ins. About a decade ago, I was a victim of a crime in my neighborhood — I was mugged and pepper-sprayed a few blocks from my home, and my purse was stolen. However, I’ve never considered getting a gun. Here’s why.

It’s not that I don’t worry about crime. It’s already happened to me once, and it does happen in my neighborhood with some regularity. As a woman, I am particularly vulnerable where crimes of sexual violence are concerned. And of course like everyone else, I want to be safe.

The Big Lie about guns is this: that they will keep you safe. But facts are facts, and actually, the opposite is true. Owning a gun will make you less safe. Consider the following data points:

— According to the CDC, having a gun in your home is associated with triple the risk of homicide and nearly fivefold the risk of suicide.

— The Harvard Injury Control Research Center (HICRC) has found that suicide attempts using a gun are far more likely to be fatal than such attempts using any other method. HICRC also reports that the availability of more guns is associated with more accidental deaths.

— A recent peer-reviewed study at the University of Pennsylvania found that people who have guns are 4.5 times more likely to be shot during an assault than those who don’t own firearms.

— Still think owning a gun might be a good idea, if you had decent training and maybe even some advance warning about what day a bad guy might show up at your doorstep? This video should make you think twice.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Wendy Button thought that a gun might solve her crime problem. The gun manufacturers and their lobbying arm, the NRA, are faced with a dilemma: gun ownership in America is declining (though there are more guns, there are actually fewer gun owners). In a desperate flop sweat as their old angry-white-dude consumer base dies out, the gun manufacturers are frantically trying to sell their product to a new audience. They’ve attempted to market guns to women, mostly by tacking on a lot of cheap pink crap.

But thankfully, most women are too smart and too rational to buy into this garbage. We don’t need pathetic penis substitutes to feel powerful or bolster our self-esteem.

If you do want to protect yourself against crime, here are some things you can do that are actually sane. First of all, of course, take the usual precautions — be aware of your surroundings, trust your instincts, avoid walking alone on deserted streets or after dark, that sort of thing. You may find a self-defense training useful. I took one when I volunteered for Girls Rock! Chicago, and it was very helpful — even, I daresay, empowering. To clear up a misperception: this sort of one-session training is a basic public safety training. If you want to go full-on martial arts, you can go that route as well, but that’s a much bigger investment of time and money.

My second piece of advice: if you’ve got the bucks, invest in an alarm system.

Third, if you can’t afford an alarm, or in addition to an alarm, get a big ol’ dog. This happens to be my own personal solution, btw. Hildy is a large Rottweiler mix straight from the Chicago city pound who is sweet as pie but also fiercely protective, and has a deep-throated bark that will scare the crap out of you if you don’t know her.

Why do I suggest an alarm, or a loud dog? Simple: as Adam Gopnik has written, most crime is opportunistic. You don’t need to have a terribly sophisticated alarm system or a trained attack dog — just something that’s annoying enough to give the criminal pause and make him move on the next joint.

Something else about a self-defense training, an alarm, or a dog — these things will all help you and, unlike a gun, they do not have the potential to be used against you. Also, they will make you feel better. Taking a self-defense training or martial arts course is a great way to get to know people. Dogs provide hours of exercise and fun and unlimited unconditional love, and they help connect you to other dog lovers in your community.

Guns, on the other hand, tend to make you paranoid. Studies show that high rates of gun ownership are associated with low levels of mutual trust and civic engagement.

There’s one more reason why I think women in particular need to be very wary of the strong-arm marketing tactics of the gun-manufacturers, and it goes back to the main point of Wendy Button’s op-ed. Women are approximately twice as likely as men to suffer from depression and related mood disorders. Since gun owners are nearly five times as likely to commit suicide as non-gun owners, that means that guns in the home pose a special risk for women, given our greater propensity to depression.

As I wrote earlier today, just last week I lost my friend, Aaron Swartz, to suicide. Aaron, who suffered from depression, didn’t choose to use a gun to end his life. But each year, thousands of Americans do. I’m convinced that many of those suicides could have been prevented if access to firearms were restricted.

On Tuesday, I attended Aaron’s funeral in Highland Park, Illinois. It left me deeply shaken. Many of us felt like we had our hearts ripped right out of us. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard so many adult men sobbing.

In some ways, those closest to Aaron may never get over the trauma of his death. I think all of us should do all we can to prevent similar deaths. One way to do this is to demand an end to the kind of unjust prosecution Aaron faced. But another would be to enact any kind of gun legislation that restricts access to guns and thus prevents desperate people from getting their hands on them. President Obama’s proposals are a welcome step in the right direction, and I applaud them.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee