What Do We Really Know About Gun Violence?
I spent the weekend reading a wonderful, wonderful novel by Joyce Carol Oates. It’s The Gravedigger’s Daughter, which I read when it first appeared in 2007, but I chanced to pick it up again as I was looking for another book on one of my shelves, so I read it again. Wow.
There’s a brief section in the text which describes how the gravedigger, an immigrant from Germany who came to the United States with his family in 1936, shoots and kills a man during an argument in the cemetery, then goes into the shack where he lives, shoots his wife, and then shoots himself. The episode is described through the eyes of his daughter Rebecca, who is twelve years old at the time.
Her father had been a mathematics teacher at a very exclusive school in Germany where the family lived a substantial, middle-class life. He packed up everyone in 1936 and fled, no doubt running from the anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime, although this issue, like many issues within the family, is left unspoken and unsaid.
They get into the United States, and the only job this educated, professional man can find is to take care of a small, Christian cemetery in a crummy, little, upstate New York town, where he is regarded as something of a weirdo, a loner, but at least the family has survived.
As the years go by, the daughter’s father becomes more bitter, more anguished, more pissed off at how the world has not treated him the way he deserved. At some point he goes into town, takes his savings out of the bank, and buys a Remington shotgun and some shells. He tells the owner of the gun shop that he’s buying the gun to ‘protect’ his family from some kids who had painted swastikas on the cemetery walls.
Rebecca has two older brothers of whom the eldest viciously beat up two of the kids who had vandalized the cemetery and he is now a fugitive with a warrant out for his arrest. The younger brother one day simply disappears. So, the family is in a state of gradual collapse — the father drinking too much, the mother increasingly withdrawn.
One day two men come to the cemetery to visit a family grave and get into an argument with Rebecca’s father because they are pissed off at what they consider to be the lack of caretaking in the cemetery — the overgrown plots, the weeds growing on gravesites, the general lack of attention and care.
Rebecca’s father goes into the tool shed, comes out with the shotgun, and blows one of the men away. He then walks into his little, stone cabin, kills his wife and then shoots himself dead. Rebecca is made a ward of the state and is taken in by her grammar-school teacher where she lives for the next four years.
From the first page of this novel, you get the idea that something bad will happen to this family. You don’t know what it is, and when it finally happens, it’s not something you would expect. And when it does happen, it’s over and done with in about as much time as it takes to read the single page in this novel which describes the horrendous event.
But this is exactly what happens in the United States more than a thousand times every year, what is called ‘murder-suicide’ almost always involving members of a family where things have just gotten out of control.
I don’t know anyone who has ever written about this kind of event with the descriptive powers and observations employed by Joyce Carol Oates. But I have read endless accounts of families blown apart by this kind of behavior and until I read The Gravedigger’s Daughter I have never (read: never) been as overwhelmed by the suddenness and immediacy of such an event.
Our friend Jennifer Mascia has just published an article about gun suicide in The Trace, where she makes the point that while we lead all advanced countries in our rate of overall gun violence, we are the country with the highest rate of gun suicides by far. Rich or poor, it doesn’t matter — gun owners in the United States who want to end their own lives overwhelmingly do it with a gun.
Mascia’s article goes into details about gun suicide, which each year claims some 30,000 lives or more. She mentions gun murder-suicides and quotes the publisher of the Gun Violence Archive, Mark Bryant, who gives a figure for annual murder-suicide events which may be about half as many of these events as actually take place.
We don’t really know how many times someone shoots someone else and then turns the gun on himself. The reason we don’t is because the data on gun violence, regardless of the source (CDC, FBI, etc.) looks either at victims or perpetrators, but never at both. The FBI breaks out data on who commits gun violence using the standard SES categories: gender, race, age, etc. But we are left completely in the dark when it comes to tying the behavior of these individuals to the individuals they killed or how the actual killing took place.
The World Health Organization defines violence as any intentional attempt by an individual to injure himself or someone else. Most violent behavior results in a non-fatal injury, the one exception being violence caused by using a gun.
How will we ever figure out an effective strategy to deal with gun violence if we don’t know how, when, and why a life ended because someone picked up a gun?