One of the major gaps in public health gun research has just been filled with an article that details the kinds of guns that are used in gun violence of all kinds, in particular the slightly less than 80,000 who ended up in a hospital emergency room with some type of gun wound. The study was conducted by researchers and surgeons connected to Johns Hopkins University Hospital, and covered a representative national sample of all ER gun-injury admissions from 2006 to 2014.

ER             The importance of knowing what type of gun was used to inflict that violence shouldn’t be underestimated for the simple reason that regulating gun ownership with more than 300 million guns floating around can be a fairly costly dead end.  Right now the guy who walks into my gun shop and buys a bolt-action hunting rifle which holds 4-5 cartridges has to jump through the same legal hoops as the guy who walks in and buys a Glock 17 which holds 16 or 17 high-powered rounds.  And the idea that any gun which changes hands without a background check could be a greater threat to public safety flies in the face of how we usually think about the lethality of guns.  But thanks to the researchers at Hopkins, for the first time we can make the connection between what kinds of guns are involved in different types of gun violence and perhaps craft policies that better reflect what types of guns need to be controlled.

Along with figuring out what types of guns are used for different types of gun violence events, the researchers also put together some interesting data on the demographics of individuals who are injured with a gun. Interestingly, the age cohorts for persons sustaining gun injuries showed a similar pattern for accidents, suicides and assaults; i.e., in all three categories, victims ages 18-29 appeared most frequently, whereas I would have thought that gun suicide attempts were higher as the patient age went up.  We have always known that young men are most vulnerable when it comes to guns and assaults, but their vulnerability to gun violence evidently extends to suicide as well.

The most important takeaway from this research effort, however, is the finding that different types of guns figure prominently in different types of injuries.  When someone ends up in the ER as the result of a handgun wound, there’s better than a 50-50 chance that the shooting was an intentional assault. If the wound was from a shotgun, the chances were 4 out of 10 that it was an assault but intentional injuries from AR-style rifles were 3 out of 10. What was the weapon responsible for most unintentional injuries? A standard hunting rifle, figuring in more than 7 out of 10 accidents, followed by AR rifles at more than 60% of all AR wounds.

But here’s the real issue which needs to be understood.  Of all the patients who came into the ER with a gun wound from which they were suffering but were still alive, only suicide claimed more than 10% of those victims; for everyone else getting to the ER alive with a gun wound meant at least a 9 out of 10 chance of being saved.  What is the type of weapon which suicide victims are more than likely to choose?  Turns out that more suicides are attempted with hunting rifles than with anything else!

This is a very serious finding and one that needs more serious discussion in order to be better understood. Because in thinking about gun violence, we usually consider hunting accidents to be nothing more than the fact that in order to hunt you usually have to use a gun. No different than using a parachute to do skydiving and maybe the chute fails to open up. But if gun suicides are 2/3 of all gun fatalities and the weapon of choice is a bolt-action rifle which only holds 4-5 rounds, is any kind of gun less lethal than any other kind?

Kudos to Ladd Everitt for alerting us to this study.