Why have accidental shooting deaths plummeted?

(from newcastic.com)

(from newcastic.com)

[Ed: If you’d like to hear the discussion, check out Cam & Co. on NRA TV.]

Although it’s not a formal study, an article published yesterday in the Los Angeles Times is a good example of how probably naïve, well-meaning journalism goes wrong trying to cover issues about harm from shootings. In “Amid Rising gun violence, accidental shooting deaths have plummeted. Why?”, Kurtis Lee considers that seeming contradiction.

Of course, the notion that “gun violence” is rising is itself debatable. Overall, deaths and injuries from shootings (criminal and justifiable homicides, suicides and accidents) have been on a steady decline since the cocaine wars of the 1980s, right along with the boom in firearms ownership and the concealed carry movement that have happened simultaneously. Homicides only have increased just during the past two years. Addressing why that has happened would make a much greater contribution to epidemiology, because it is anomalous at this point in history, and worrisome for that reason.

How much have accidental shooting deaths declined? Lee figures that, adjusted for population growth, it fell by about half from 1999 to 2015 (from 824 to 489). Looking back as far as 1981, when 1,871 people died that way and again adjusting for population change, the rate of accidental shooting deaths has dropped over five-fold. Meanwhile, the number of civilian firearms owned in America rose from perhaps 173 million in 1981 to over 350 million by 2015. Looked at as a proportion of guns available, the reduction in accidental shooting deaths, as from shootings overall, is even more dramatic.

Back to the article. Lee posits three potential causes for the drop in accidental deaths:

  1. “gun safety education programs,
  2. state laws regulating gun storage in homes and
  3. a drop in the number of households that have guns.”

Expert commentary, of course, comes only from one side—Everytown for Gun Safety and The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. The NRA declined to comment, for which they can’t be blamed, but the search evidently didn’t go far from there.

Let’s chase off the wild geese in the list first, numbers 2 and 3.

State laws “requiring” guns and ammunition to be stored locked up are becoming more popular, mostly in blue states, but there has been no evidence for any reduction in shootings of any kind because of them. Just as laws banning certain forms of consenting adult interactions never did, neither can they dictate what people do in the privacy of their own homes with their guns. This is a fool’s errand, the kind that “people control” is all about.

The much-touted “drop in the number of households that have guns” comes from generic surveys about crime experience and lifestyle in which touching upon gun ownership often arises incidentally in pursuing other primary lines of inquiry. There have been no reliable, focused analyses of household gun ownership done, and this is unlikely to be possible. We do know that gun owners have become understandably more reluctant over time to answer such questions, whether asked by strangers taking surveys, their physicians or on any record. Just as registration is a precondition for confiscation, we know that identification is a precondition for registration.

In a discussion “Update: Gun Ownership Rises”, John Lott dissects the problem with the many surveys that arrive at very different conclusions about gun ownership in the United States. Anywhere from 9 to 17% of respondents likely don’t even admit to it. And multiple surveys not only show different results for gun ownership year by year, but the findings fluctuate dramatically up and down within repeated surveys by the same source.

All this simply demonstrates that we have no accurate data on prevalence or changes in gun ownership, other than that it more likely exists in as many as 50% of households (at that, perhaps an underestimate) and is very likely stable or rising. While gun owners die or give up their weapons at some point, removing them from the pool of current owners, we also see strong increases in the numbers of NICS applications, firearms and accessory purchases, and people seeking training. No, this is not the picture of declining popularity of gun ownership.

This leaves “gun safety education programs” as most likely creditable for the amazing decrease in accidental shooting rates over the 17-35 years in question. Had real live experts been interviewed, this point would have been made. Thanks to the NRA, NSSF, SAF and countless state and local organizations and gun clubs, millions of people each year learn real gun control and safe shooting, and enjoy it. Reaching children through schools, Scouting and places of worship with programs teaching safety at relevant developmental levels is the optimal intervention. Being safe doesn’t rely on whether everyone in the country locks up their weapons just so—that’s simply not going to happen. Just like learning to swim in case one gets dunked unexpectedly, knowing what to do and not do when discovering a firearm is lifesaving knowledge that everyone should want for their kids.

There is plenty else to pick at: using a tragic incident as the centerpiece of the article, buying into the “gun research” community’s complaints about not getting enough government funding, and attributing lower rates of accidents to states with “safe storage” laws (even though Mississippi has higher rates despite also having such laws). And the accident declines have occurred nationwide, regardless of specific changes (or lack thereof) in one state or another.

“If we had seen this kind of decline in some other public health area—like an infectious disease—I guarantee that by now we would have nailed down the reason for the decline,” says one pro-control spokesman. But we do know the answer, and it doesn’t require dishing out more tax dollars to see it, except for those whose gravy trains are threatened.

Individuals teaching others, positive peer pressure within the gun community, formal teaching programs for young and old, novices and experts, with occasional prosecutions of egregious irresponsibility, has taken us a very long way from 1981 until today. More laws, even as promoted by professional academics and politicians, haven’t.

We’ve come a long way, baby. Keep up the good work!


Robert B Young, MD

— DRGO Editor Robert B. Young, MD is a psychiatrist practicing in Pittsford, NY, an associate clinical professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, and a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.

All DRGO articles by Robert B. Young, MD.