South African Olympic and Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, who became famous after competing in the London Olympics on carbon-fiber blades, has been charged with the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. Steenkamp was shot and killed in Pistorius’ home early on Thursday.
Pistorius did have a troubled history with alcohol and women, though the investigation is still in early stages and it is not yet clear what happened. His legal team argues that the shooting was just an unfortunate accident and that he mistook Steenkamp for a burglar. Regardless of Pistorius’ role in the shooting it raises questions about guns and their place in the home. The NRA has argued repeatedly that guns are valuable—indeed, vital—for home defense. Amy Davidson writes:
We have heard a good deal from the N.R.A. in the last couple of months about how a gun defends a home. Wayne LaPierre, the group’s executive vice-president and increasingly unhinged public face, has been out talking about how everyone needs a gun to be prepared for a coming time of financial crisis and natural disaster.
But there are also broader implications and risks of having a gun in the house. It makes a domestic conflict—which this incident may have been—more likely to escalate and result in a murder. Solange Uwimana writes:
According to research by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “Domestic violence assaults involving a firearm are 23 times more likely to result in death than those involving other weapons or bodily force.”
When it comes to domestic disputes you are actually a lot less safe if there is a gun in the home. Without access to guns many of these fatal assaults would have merely resulted in injuries or would not have escalated at all.
Gun ownership is also connected to death by suicide. The New York Times reports:
Guns are particularly lethal. Suicidal acts with guns are fatal in 85 percent of cases, while those with pills are fatal in just 2 percent of cases, according to the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.
The national map of suicide lights up in states with the highest gun ownership rates. Wyoming, Montana and Alaska, the states with the three highest suicide rates, are also the top gun-owning states, according to the Harvard center. The state-level data are too broad to tell whether the deaths were in homes with guns, but a series of individual-level studies since the early 1990s found a direct link. Most researchers say the weight of evidence from multiple studies is that guns in the home increase the risk of suicide.
“The literature suggests that having a gun in your home to protect your family is like bringing a time bomb into your house,” said Dr. Mark Rosenberg, an epidemiologist who helped establish the C.D.C.’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. “Instead of protecting you, it’s more likely to blow up.”
In a report released in the year 2000 the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that the absence of guns from homes with children in them is the best way to prevent accidents and injuries:
This statement reaffirms the 1992 position of the American Academy of Pediatrics that the absence of guns from children’s homes and communities is the most reliable and effective measure to prevent firearm-related injuries in children and adolescents. A number of specific measures are supported to reduce the destructive effects of guns in the lives of children and adolescents, including the regulation of the manufacture, sale, purchase, ownership, and use of firearms; a ban on handguns and semiautomatic assault weapons; and expanded regulations of handguns for civilian use.
Then there is the matter of self-defense. If, as some have suggested, Pistorius mistakenly thought Steenkamp was a burglar and he was only trying to defend himself, then this is really just a tragic and preventable accident. But this illustrates one of the main arguments of gun control advocates—the extreme consequences of small mistakes with guns. What protection can be afforded by having a gun in hand must be set against the probability one will shoot an innocent in a rage or by accident.
Police officers receive extensive training to avoid these kind of mistakes and still make them frequently, as evidenced most recently by the three people shot by the LAPD in search of the mass killer Chris Dorner. An ordinary person, with little or no training in firearms, is only more likely to make such a mistake.
The NRA can claim whatever they want about guns, but in this case the numbers disagree with them. When guns are involved, domestic violence is far more likely to escalate; guns were used in over two-thirds of homicides involving a current or former partner between 1990 and 2005. In the case of Reeva Steenkamp guns did not make her safer and likely cost her life.