As gun deaths continue to rise in America, social scientists wonder why so many feel the need to carry firearms


(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Griselle Trujillo with her 19-month-old daughter Luna Faith Fernandez in Heber Tuesday April 24, 2018. Trujillo's husband Jose Fernandez was killed by an acquaintance with a handgun after an evening of drinking.

If you just hadn’t pulled the trigger.

That’s what 3rd District Judge Keith Kelly said before sentencing 27-year-old Christopher Bonds to prison for up to life March 5 for the shooting death of his friend Byron “Cheese” Williams, 25, in Salt Lake County on Nov. 20, 2016.

Two weeks later, in another homicide case, a bright-eyed 18-month-old girl cruised around a Park City courtroom, oblivious to the fact that James Enoch Henfling, 29, was being sentenced to prison for up to life for the Feb. 22, 2016, fatal shooting of her father, Jose Fernandez, 37, a popular bartender in the resort town.

In both cases, the victims and the shooters were acquaintances who were socializing with alcohol. In both cases, one man had a handgun, an argument erupted and shots were fired.

For some social scientists, questions surrounding such incidents aren’t aimed at the Second Amendment. Rather, researchers want to understand why people, men in particular, feel a need to pack a firearm.

A sense of masculinity is a factor, leading to backlashes against gun control proposals, according to Jennifer Carlson, a University of Arizona sociologist.

“As they practiced shooting their firearms, they imagined scenarios in which women and children might need their help,” she has written of her research subjects. “A man with a rifle in a schoolyard full of kids; a woman being raped in an alley; an armed robber targeting a diner waitress.”

But the subject hasn’t been fully examined, because in 1997, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, Congress slashed funding for research into gun violence. It also barred the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from conducting studies that could provide information that would “advocate or promote gun control.”

Stories such as the deaths of Williams and Fernandez are repeated thousands of times each year in the United States. Unlike mass shootings, many are intimate interactions in which people resort to firepower over what can look to be slight provocations.

In 2015, there were 12,979 homicides by gun in the U.S. About 80 percent of them were handgun shootings, according to the FBI.

There also were 1,255 accidental shooting deaths that year. In addition, there were 22,018 gun suicides, according to the CDC — bringing the total of gun-related deaths in 2015 to 36,252. (Of them, 2,799 were teens and children.)

That same year, the number of automobile fatalities — 36,161 — almost mirrored gun death totals, according to CDC statistics.

In Utah, the phenomenon was more pronounced. In 2015, 371 people died of gunshot wounds, according to the CDC, while 276 people died in automobile accidents.

Americans seem to accept auto fatalities as part of living in modern-day society. Likewise, observers say, unless there is a mass shooting, news of yet another homicide or suicide brings the same kind of acceptance — unless, of course, family and friends are involved.

The extended families of Bonds and Fernandez were grief-stricken and inconsolable by the murders of their loved ones, hurting as much as friends and families of the victims of the mass murder in a Parkland, Fla., school.

In Utah courtrooms, they wept and, in each case, told the judge of their emotional despair before prison terms were handed down.

Lena Valdez, the mother of Williams’ children, told Bonds in a Salt Lake City courtroom that he had shattered their lives.

“It’s sad that he was killed by someone who said he was his friend,” she said. “Now my kids have to grow up without a father. There is nothing you can do to bring him back. I hope you suffer.”

In Park City, Fernandez’s wife, Griselle Trujillo, told Judge Patrick Corum that she had been trying to get pregnant for many years without success.

“When I was finally able to conceive, it was a wonderful moment for us. I’ll never forget his happy face,” she said of her husband. “I’m wondering how this could happen to us all these years after going for our dream.”

Good guys with guns

In her book “Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline,” sociologist Carlson considers the value of guns to their owners.

More succinctly, in a May 2015 Los Angeles Times opinion piece, she said that for men, guns can be related to social insecurities. Her research subjects, she said, cast themselves as good guys with guns.

“The gun rights platform is not just about guns. It’s also about a crisis of confidence in the American dream,” she wrote in the Times. “And this is one reason gun control efforts ignite such intense backlashes: Restrictions are received as a personal affront to men who find in guns a sense of duty, relevance and even dignity.”

Nonetheless, according to a study published in the Jan. 20, 2014, edition of “Annals of Internal Medicine,” people who have ready access to a firearm are almost twice as likely to be killed and three times likelier to commit suicide than those without an available gun.

Why people own guns

University of Arizona sociologist (downcase) Jennifer Carlson says men own firearms for a variety of reasons, including to gain a sense of masculinity, relevance and dignity. The graph below is based on an unrelated 2017 survey of 1,269 gun owners.

Note: The catagories in the graph total more than 100 percent because survey participants could provide more than one reason for owning a gun.

Source: Pew Research Center, 2017

In some cases, the presence of a firearm itself may provoke an inclination to use it, said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill. And the consequences can be great.

“When a gun goes off in a community, the scope of the victimization is deep and profound,” Gill said. “It’s like a pebble dropped in water with a ripple; the full scope spans the community.”

Beyond firearm fatalities, 84,997 people survived gunshot wounds in 2015, according to the CDC. They may suffer lifetime injuries, while others who witness a shooting may develop post-traumatic stress disorder, Gill said.

While those close to a shooting may suffer, as a nation we have become numb to the sheer numbers of such episodes, the district attorney said.

“The human cost gets lost,” he noted. “We have become secondary consumers of information, and it has made us jaded.”

The argument that guns make us safer is pervasive, Gill said, and seems to be linked to our history.

“It’s the notion of the American West, frontier justice and the rugged individualist — the Marlboro Man,” he said. “You didn’t have the cavalry, you were the cavalry.”

A Utah legislator who supports Second Amendment guarantees for the right of self-defense said gun owners should not drink while they are carrying firearms.

“One of the things we know is that guns and alcohol don’t mix, just like cars and alcohol don’t mix,” said Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo. “We need to remind people who carry weapons that if they are going to drink, to lock them away.”

In 2017, Thurston sponsored legislation that made Utah the first state to lower the legal blood alcohol level of drivers from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent. That law also restricted firearms in the same manner. But, in its 2018 session, the Legislature amended the law and 0.08 is again the legal limit for carrying a gun.

So many guns, so little research

Sonia Salari, a University of Utah sociology professor, has spent her career researching gun violence, focusing on domestic shootings and suicide.

“It is devastating to the families involved,” she said. “It makes a huge difference to children of the victims, as well as those of the offenders.”

The prevalence of guns in American households makes it easier for people to act on destructive impulses that most likely would pass in minutes or hours, Salari said. When there is no firearm in the home, there are fewer homicides and suicides.

“What we find in our research is that states with tougher gun regulations have fewer murders and suicides,” Salari said.

There are a small number of private institutions that fund gun violence research, she added. But it isn’t nearly enough.

“Now we are starting to see an upswing in firearms death rates,” Salari said. “We are armed to the hilt.”

There are well over 300 million firearms in this country — some estimates put the number in excess of 357 million (enough for every man, woman and child in the nation, with millions to spare). Guns can be found in an estimated 42 percent of American homes, according to the Pew Research Center.

“By having a ban on federally funded research into gun violence,” Salari said, “people are not getting to hear their real chance of getting hurt by a firearm.”

Thurston, the Utah lawmaker, said he supports federal funding for research into gun violence. “There is always room to understand the root cause of violence.”

It’s impossible to know if such studies and the possibility of an ensuing shift in American laws and culture would have saved Jose Fernandez and Bryon Williams, whose families must now live without them and raise their children.

As Williams’ family wept in Judge Kelly’s courtroom last month, Christopher Bonds looked over at them from the defense table as he was about to be led out in handcuffs, and said: “I hope you can forgive me someday for what I did. I’m sorry.”

If he just hadn’t pulled the trigger or hadn’t had a trigger to pull.