POEM: Smoking Guns

Smoking Guns

Gun control is their aim
Bringing a bout
Sad states
And a stag nation
Wear points are sported
Big bucks are the game
Triggering depression
Beyond one’s cope
Looking down
The business end
Of a gun shaking
As one’s head
Worse than beating
Against the wall
Steadied boots
Quaking again
Mourning posthumous convictions
Of scofflaw abiding citizens
Accost paid
Wrapped in flags
Until free at last
Like taking life
Most like one own
Or another
Like black male
Against one’s will
No more amendments seconded
In this ultimate bill of rites
Pain in full
Coffin at the price
High as a kite
And nonnegotiable        
Hostage too smoking
Guns unlocked
And loaded
Still packing
In their sleep
Dreams of night stands
And steel pillows
Leaving red necks
And faces
Like a smothers love
Taking homicides
As common ground
All the wile
Shooting off their mouths
Making impossible Glock suckers
Deceasing and desisting
The Man
Behind the curtain
Firing the lynch pin
For all times
As smoking guns
Don’t prove anything
So says anyone with half a brain

The title of this poem, “Smoking Guns,” is at least a triple pun.  The first meaning, most literal, is a gun just fired.  The second meaning refers to a quest for direct evidence of something (like a gun being fired!).  The third meaning is a bit more nuanced and fleshed out in the poem: literally smoking a gun by holding it in one’s mouth and committing suicide by firing it and blowing one’s brains out.  While this may seem more crude than nuanced, it is referencing an oft overlooked reality about guns and public health and safety: guns kill more Americans by suicide than murder.  The bizarre notion that guns offer some great protection in a dangerous world is negated by the frightening reality that someone possessing a gun is more likely to shoot and kill themselves, then kill another.  Now, this may be some bizarre karmic feedback to those with guns, but it can’t get much stranger — another loaded pun!  If someone possessing a gun manages not to kill themselves, they are far more likely to mistakenly kill a family member than a truly threatening stranger.  Of course, this leapfrogs over the tragic reality of purely unintentional deaths from accidental discharges, most often of a gun owner’s family members or friends!  Only when guns are outlawed will outlaws accidentally shoot their kids!  So much for protection.

The reality is guns are lethal consumer products that have escaped safe, commonsense regulation — unparalleled by any other consumer product with such inherent lethality.  Guns and suicide are the perfect example of this public health problem.  Guns are a very effective means of killing oneself that doesn’t take any special knowledge or training.  Very few people “fail” when trying to kill themselves with a gun.  Combined with the nature of suicide attempts, guns become particularly lethal.  Firearms are involved in over half of all suicides.  Most suicide attempts are by people depressed or distressed who experience an acute episode of severe suicidal thoughts.  These episodes are most frequently minutes or hours.  Without easy access to lethal means, most suicidal episodes are survived.  The choice of suicide methods is key. Moderating easy access to firearms is the most effective means of reducing suicides.  For example, compared to men, women are about three times more likely to experience depression, twice as likely to attempt suicide, yet only about a fourth as likely to “successfully” complete suicide.  This is largely related to the suicidal methods chosen.  Simply put, women use guns much less frequently in suicide attempts.  Women are only about a third as likely as men to own a gun, and are less likely to live in households with guns.

The main alternative approach to preventing suicides is having an excellent mental health system.  Unfortunately, this approach is at least as complex, and perhaps similarly intractable, as altering easy gun access.  Plus, building and maintaining an excellent mental health system is surely more financially expensive and less cost-effective than sensible regulation of firearms.  Of course, pursuing both would have definite payoffs, reducing suicide and much more!

Having worked in public health for many years, I see the parallels in the battles to bring both tobacco use and guns into a reasonable place in protecting the publics health.  Frankly, I see gun right’s nuts as even crazier than tobacco company executives lining up in front of congress and saying that they don’t believe that nicotine is addictive.  It’s difficult to think of another area of public policy and public health where the political and societal realities are so divorced from science and reason.  May we escape the ideological traps that threaten the public’s health and well-being.  After all, guns don’t die, people do!

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