[Ed: Dr. Mauser, our northern correspondent, originally published this October 5 on Justice for Gun Owners.]
Accidental gun deaths are low and have been falling for decades. There is no doubt that firearm ownership imposes serious safety challenges for gun owners so that owners must act responsibly to ensure their own safety as well as the safety of their family, neighbors, and community.
Thanks to a strong culture of safety in the firearms community, gun accidents are rare. In the past five years (2015-2019), the most recent years statistics are available, 11 Canadians died each year from an accidental firearms injury.
Annual Accidental Deaths
Source: Statistics Canada. Table 13-10-0156-01 Deaths, by cause, Chapter XX: External causes of morbidity and mortality (V01 to Y89)
Accidental deaths of any kind are particularly tragic because it’s easy to imagine they could have been avoided. Each death is a grievous loss, but out of an estimated 4 million gun owners, these low numbers are pretty impressive. These statistics imply firearms owners are responsible and conscientious citizens.
Low and declining
This is less than half the number of accidental deaths in the early 2000s when 26 people lost their lives through firearms accidents. The most likely explanation for the continued drop is the strong culture of safety that hunting and shooting organizations inculcate in gun owners. Some have claimed that the recent drop is due to a decline in the number of firearms owners. This does not appear to be the case. PALS have increased 18% since 2007. This year was picked in order to capture the natural growth rate. There was a rapid increase in PAL holders during first few years of the PAL program (which began in 2001) because the first few years the statistics were inflated by the millions of Canadians who were required to get a licence for the first time.
A North American culture of safety
A similar pattern is seen in the United States thanks to a strong culture of safety both countries share, promoted by NSSF, NRA, and hunting organizations such as the IHEA. The age-adjusted rate of unintentional firearm deaths was low in 1999 (0.29 per 100,000 population) and fell even further to just 0.15 per 100,000 population in 2019, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Anti-gun activists exaggerate the risks of firearms in order to evoke public support for additional restrictions on civilian firearms. Ill-trained public health activists publish pseudo-scientific studies that torture statistics to exaggerate the dangers of civilian firearms ownership. Such efforts look misplaced compared with casualty rates for other popular activities.
Thanks to a variety of voluntary organizations, a culture of safety has become widespread in many activities, but shooting and hunting organizations deserve particular credit. The numbers of firearms accidents have been falling for decades. Back in the 1950s, before hunting organizations convinced provincial governments to introduce mandatory hunting safety courses, on average, 166 people lost their lives due to accidental firearms deaths each year.
During the 1960s, Canadian hunter organizations ramped up efforts to teach firearms safety, introducing voluntary courses and pressuring provincial governments to mandate safety courses as part of hunting licences. Almost all provincial governments began requiring hunters to take firearms safety courses in the 1970s as part of hunter safety training. Alberta was an exception, requiring firearm safety classes in 1964. Canada’s territorial governments quickly followed the provinces. The results are readily seen in the plummeting frequencies of accidental deaths in the graph. Hunter safety courses are mandatory or strongly encouraged in all provinces and territories in Canada. In BC, Alberta, and Ontario, for example.
Comparative Accident Rates
Raw death counts do not tell the entire story. These comparisons may exaggerate the safety of firearms ownership because these other activities have more participants than hunting and shooting.
To understand the relative dangerousness of an activity, it is necessary to know how many people engage in it. However, accurately estimating the number of Canadians involved in each of these activities is quite challenging. The deaths per 100,000 persons is based on the best estimates I could find for owners or those otherwise involved with each activity.
Annual Accidental Deaths per 100,000 Owner/User Population
|Deaths / 100 K user|
|Estimated Size of User / Owner Population|
|Gun owners||0.28||4 Million |
|Pedal cyclists||0.47||12 Million [2013/14]|
|Boaters||0.40||12.4 Million |
|ATV users||2.51||6.3 Million |
Sources for estimates for numbers of Canadian owners or involved in each activity:
The evidence shows that both American and Canadian firearms owners are responsible and safety conscious. Widespread ownership of firearms is integral to the North American Model of Wildlife Management, which was clearly formulated by professor Val Geist. This implies widespread training in firearms safety. Since early in the 20th Century, firearms organizations have worked diligently to educate their members and the public about how to safely handle firearms. Mandatory hunter safety courses in both Canada and the United States came into existence thanks to the lobbying efforts of a number of firearms organizations, including the National Rifle Association.
— Gary Mauser, PhD is professor emeritus in the Institute for Canadian Urban Research Studies and the Beedie School of Business, Simon Fraser University, British Columbia. He specializes in criminology and economics, has published extensively on firearms legislation, firearms and violence, and has provided expert testimony on criminal justice issues to the Canadian government.