What’s The Difference Between Accidental And Non-Accidental Shootings? No Difference.

When I entered graduate school in 1967, the very first book I purchased was a big, fat compendium known as the Chicago Manual of Style. It was published by The University of Chicago Press and was considered the non-plus-ultra guide to anything having to do with writing or editing scholarly and non-fiction articles and books. And since I was studying economic history, I was going to be writing lots of academic papers which needed to meet the standard for how to do footnotes, end notes, quotations, references and all that other bothersome stuff which writers of academic works need to pretend they understand.
kids and gunsOf course in 1967 there was no internet, for that matter there were no such things as word processors and I don’t recall even putting my fingers on the keyboard of an IBM Selectric typewriter until 1970 or 1971 (although I had actually seen one a few years prior to that date.) Because I come from the Stone Age in terms of communication technologies and skills, I don’t take for granted the degree to which so much of what I had to do by hand when I first started writing is now done online. And one of those online resources which helps me and countless other writers and bloggers get things done in an efficient and orderly way is the AP Stylebook which is an extremely useful reference work containing definitions, topics, themes and other information to be used when an event or an issue has to be quickly understood and described. I just clicked on the topic – hurricanes – and up came a whole list of definitions for every type of tropical storm, the name and address of various federal agencies that deal with hurricane relief, and so on.

The AP Stylebook stays up to date by giving users an opportunity to suggest either new topics and/or content which should be added or revised. In this way, writers who are covering topical events can feel confident that if they utilize a resource from the Stylebook it will reflect the most recent way in which that issue is described or understood. One of our good GVP friends, Ladd Everitt, has just initiated a campaign through his organization, One Pulse for America, to have the Stylebook revise its definition of an ‘accidental’ shooting because, as Ladd says, “’Accidental’ implies that nothing can be done to prevent such shootings, when nothing is further from the truth.” Most accidental shootings, as Ladd points out, occur either because of negligence (the gun was left unsecured) or the owner was acting like a dope. The AP Stylebook team responded by saying they would consider changing the description of ‘accidental shootings’ when a new edition appears next year.

There is no question that referring to unintentional injuries caused by guns as ‘accidents’ gives a misleading impression about whether or not anyone should be blamed when a gun goes off when it’s not supposed to go off. But I also think that making a clear distinction between accidental, as opposed to non-accidental gun injuries can create its own misleading impression for what gun violence is really all about.
Lester Adelson was the coroner for Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) nearly 40 years, during which time he saw thousands of individuals who were killed with guns. In 1992 he published a summary article on gun violence, “The gun and the sanctity of human life; or The bullet as pathogen” which for me, ranks as the single most incisive and profound work ever published on this issue, and you can download it here. Here’s what Adelson says is the most salient feature of gun violence: “With its particular lethality, a gun converts a spat into a slaying and a quarrel into a killing.”

Does it really matter if the gun is used intentionally or not? To quote the novelist Walter Mosley, “If you walk around with a gun it will go off sooner or later.”

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Here’s An Easy Way For The NRA To Prevent Gun Accidents.

According to the CDC, in 2014 slightly less than 16,000 Americans accidentally shot themselves or someone else and survived their wound.  Back in 2009, the number was 18,610.  Which means, according to the gun industry, that guns are getting safer all the time.  And of course when it comes to accidental shootings which result in death, the number has not only been declining year after year, it’s so paltry now that the whole gun safety issue is not even worthy of concern.

nra4              After all, how can anyone get worked up over a few hundred deaths when we all know that folks walking around with guns prevent millions of serious crimes from being committed every year?  And if you doubt that figure, just take a look at the NRA’s Armed Citizen website, which shows that 38 armed Americans used their guns to protect themselves and others from criminals in the month of March alone! Now if you read the fine print you’ll discover that 8 of those armed citizens turned out to be off-duty cops who are supposed to have their guns handy even when they aren’t on the job, which gets us down to around 30 times when someone exercised their 2nd-Amendment ‘right’ to defend themselves with a gun. And a little bit of math that even I can do gets us up to a whopping 360 armed-citizen protective incidents a year. Wow! How could you even begin to doubt the value of civilian gun ownership when all we lose to gun accidents is less than five hundred folks each year?

Of course leave it to those troublemakers at Harvard’s School of Public Health to point out that official counts on fatal gun accidents may, in fact, be undercounted by at least half.  And this is because coroners are often reluctant to rule a gun death as an accident since many such events end up being reviewed in court. As one coroner told the researchers, “If one person kills another person, we usually call it homicide and let the courts decide whether there was any wrongdoing” So that’s the end of that.

In any case, there may be a chance, although I doubt it, that Gun-nut Nation will take a somewhat less benign view of gun accidents given what happened at the gun range in NRA headquarters this past week. Evidently an employee of the NRA was in the process of holstering his gun after banging a few; the gun went off, the bullet hit the guy in the ‘lower part of his body,’ he was taken to a nearby hospital at Fairfax, treated and released – no harm done.

What I found interesting in this report was that the accident evidently occurred during a training session at NRA headquarters; it wasn’t just a case of someone going down to the range on their own time to fiddle around with their gun. And the NRA training manuals repeat ad nauseum the idea that you must keep your finger off the trigger at all times unless the gun is pointed at the target that you intend to shoot.

Which brings up the whole issue of gun safety that Gun-nut Nation tries mightily to avoid, namely, that when it comes to making a mistake with a gun, there’s no oops. And the problem is that we are human, and as humans we are all careless and we will sooner or later forget. That’s the reason we mandate seat belts but we can’t put a harness around a gun.

But I have an idea for how my friends at the NRA can prevent such accidents from happening again. Why don’t they just declare NRA headquarters to be a gun-free zone? I’m not talking about the old guns in the museum – those guns are all sitting behind glass. I’m talking about the guns that folks wear in the building because, of course, there’s always a chance that a criminal might try to assault or rob you at 11250 Waples Mill Road.

 

The Only Way To Avoid Gun Accidents Is Never Load The Gun.

There a lot of buzz going around the GVP community today about several gun deaths that were apparently the result of dropped guns.  One of the fatalities was a 16-year old girl in Houston, whose father’s gun may have discharged when he dropped it (the news report isn’t clear) the other was a 12-year old in Mississippi who came back from hunting, a gun was dropped and – BAM!

 

peacemaker

Colt Peacemaker

In 2015, the CDC says that the death toll from unintentional shootings was 489, of which 48 were under the age of 14.  These numbers may be off by as much as half, because if someone shoots someone else accidentally, state laws sometimes require that the death be ruled as a homicide even though the shooter isn’t usually charged.  But when a gun is dropped and goes off, nobody’s to ‘blame’ but the design of the gun itself.  But that’s not really true and the purpose of this column is to explain why.

Pardon me for a slight technical digression, but in order for a gun to go off, there has to be at least one round of live ammunition sitting in the breech.  The breech is the part of the gun where the live round sits with the front facing the barrel and the rear facing a firing pin.  When the firing pin is pushed into the back of the round, the chemicals in the primer create a spark, the spark ignites the powder and the explosion creates gasses which expand and push the bullet through the barrel and out of the gun. In other words, for any gun to fire, some mechanical action has to occur which pushes the firing pin into the shell.  Which is usually done by the hammer which falls on the firing pin after the trigger (which is connected to the hammer) is pulled.  Get it?

Now where things get tricky is in lining up the live shell in front of the firing pin. Because if there’s no shell in front of the firing pin, no matter how hard you push the firing pin forward, the gun simply can’t go off. When guns go off because they are dropped, what really happens is that the gun hits the floor with enough force to push the firing pin into the live round without pulling the trigger at all.

America’s oldest gun manufacturer, Colt, became famous for its Single Action Army revolver called the “Peacemaker’ or the gun that ‘won the West.’ It was known as the ‘six-shooter’ but we called it the ‘five-shooter’ because until the company redesigned its firing pin and hammer assembly, if you had the hammer over a live round in the cylinder the gun would go off sometimes just by accidentally touching the hammer as you went to pick up the gun. How many millions of these guns sold before Colt fixed the problem sometime around 1985? Remington finally settled a 20-year class action suit because the bolt in most of its hunting rifles had a funny way of going off even with the safety switch on.

The gun industry has been patting itself on the back of late, claiming that accidental gun deaths have declined to ‘historic lows,’ a result, of course, of the safety programs run by the NRA and the NSSF. I suspect that what’s also behind the decline is the spread of child access prevention (CAP) laws, but those laws penalize the gun owner if an underage person grabs a gun.  How many times does the gun owner himself or a friend lose an arm, a leg or a life because – oops! – I dropped the gun?

You can design or redesign the safety mechanism all you want, but a gun is a mechanical device and mechanical devices sometimes don’t work the way they should.  I don’t know how many of the 40 million American gun owners pick up one of their guns each day, but the more guns that are picked up, the more that will drop on the floor.

Can We Prevent Gun Accidents With Better Safe-Storage Laws? Maybe Yes, Maybe No.

USA=-Today is carrying a story on accidental gun deaths of children in which the paper discovered that the CDC number for such events is probably undercounted by about half.  The story describes specific accidental gun deaths, one in which a 4-year old shot himself with a handgun found in his grandparents’ home, another when a 6-year old killed his younger brother with a gun that was lying inside a motel room where the two kids and their parents were spending the night.

accident           Undercounting accidental shootings (or intentional shootings, for that matter) by the CDC is hardly new news. Our friends at the Gun Violence Archive deliver data on and invariably the numbers they get from open media sources are higher than what either the CDC or the FBI report in just about every category of gun violence. And while the NRA will tell you that it’s never the gun but always the person who is to blame for someone being injured with a gun, blaming a 4 year-old for shooting himself is something of a stretch.

The way we usually think about gun violence is to analyze it by creating different categories that cover both the type of violence (intentional, unintentional, homicide, suicide, legal ‘intervention,’ etc.) and the identity of the victim (location, gender, race, age, etc.)  We create these categories because we believe this will make it easier to craft sensible solutions to the problem, such as better CAP laws to prevent accidental shootings, temporary removal procedures for persons at-risk for suicide, and so forth.  It turns out, of course, that the states with the highest rate of accidental shootings, according to the USA-Today article, have no mandated safe-storage requirements at all.

What I am about to say may appear heretical to many of my friends in the Gun Violence Prevention community, or what I prefer to call Gun-sense Nation, but I think that the value and efficacy of safe-storage solutions as a response to accidental gun violence needs to be more clearly understood.  Because when I think about the root causes of gun violence, any kind of gun violence, I prefer not to think about the differences in circumstances or the people involved, but the commonalities which virtually every type of gun violence share.  And the single commonality which appears in every, single act of gun violence, is that the person who pulls the trigger has done something impulsive, careless or both.

The number one reason for car accidents isn’t DUI or speeding, it’s carelessness, which is why we mandate wearing harnesses or belts. But you don’t have seatbelts on guns, which means that no matter how many times people are told to lock up or lock away their guns, sooner or later they’ll forget.  And most accidental shootings don’t result in a young child getting hurt, but involve the owner of the gun who took it out to fool with it, show it to friends, clean it without checking whether or not it was loaded, and on and on and on. I personally know (or knew) three guys who shot themselves with their own guns; one died, two survived.  All three were fooling around with their guns.  The guy who died was playing ‘fast-draw’ down in his basement. Yanked the gun out of the holster, hammer snagged on his belt – bang!

I’m not saying that Gun-sense Nation should back off from safe storage, or CAP laws or anything else.  What I am saying is that there is simply no other consumer product that you can hold in your hand which is in any way, shape or function as remotely lethal as a gun. And if you believe that this lethality can somehow be mitigated by remaking the human brain so that we will stop being careless, then you go right ahead.  Frankly, I prefer what Walter Mosley says, “Walk around with a gun and it will go off sooner or later.” He’s right.

They Don’t Have Many Gun Accidents In Tennessee But Lots Of People Keep Getting Shot.

Earlier this year a big hue and cry broke out in Tennessee when the State Health Department issued a report which put the number of accidental shooting deaths for 2014 at the stratospheric level of 105.  This was not only four times higher than the number of unintentional gunshot deaths for any previous year, but accounted for nearly 20% of reported accidental shooting mortality in the United States.

safe-tennessee           There’s an organization in Tennessee called Safe Tennessee Project which is ‘dedicated to addressing the epidemic of gun-related injuries and gun violence’ through tracking the rate of shootings, and advocating the standard Gun-sense Nation strategies for reducing gun violence like expanded background checks, strengthening CAP and domestic violence laws, temporary gun removal from persons considered to be threats by family members – the usual nine yards. The group was rightfully alarmed when the 2014 number for accidental gun deaths was made public and their statement lamenting these shootings bounced around various media outlets here and there.

Oops! – one little problem.  Even though Safe Tennessee checked the validity of the data with the Health Department before going public, it turned out that the report was wrong. Two weeks or so after the initial reports about the 105 accidental gun deaths appeared, the State Health Department sent out an advisory which adjusted the 2014 number from 105 down to just five. This was not only the lowest annual total that Tennessee had ever recorded, but was far and away the lowest state-level number for any of the 20 states that sent their unintentional gun-death number to the CDC for 2014.

So what do you think happened?  What happened is what always happens whenever data which is used by Gun-sense Nation to promote its agenda is changed, namely, that Gun-nut Nation immediately told all its members that, once again, the gun grabbers were lying about gun violence in order to justify taking away all the guns.  The NRA called it just another example of how Gun-sense Nation uses ‘suspect data to push their political agenda,’ and of course we all know what the goal of that agenda happens to be.

As usual, the real issue that drives the debate about gun violence was lost in the mea culpa’s and tua culpa’s which followed from what was nothing more than a silly mistake made by some hapless employee at the Tennessee Department of Health. The CDC creates data based on reports that follow a procedure known as ICD-10, developed and administered by the World Health Organization, which allows physicians throughout the entire world to keep track of medical diagnoses in a uniform and comprehensive way. In the case of injuries, they are divided between intentional versus unintentional events, so as to make it easier for public health and law enforcement to ascertain the extent to which the incidence of any particular type of injury is going up or going down.

Although I can understand why we need to differentiate car accidents as unintentional injuries versus aggravated assaults where intentionality is clearly the cause, I have never felt comfortable in dividing gun injuries into these distinct categories for the simple reason that, as opposed to responding to damages from vehicle crashes by designing safer cars, there is no way to make guns ‘safer’ as long as someone points a gun at themselves or someone else and goes – bang!  Because if you haven’t figured this one out yet, let me break it to you gently: guns are designed for one purpose and one purpose only – to propel a solid piece of lead at high speed from me to you.

Tennessee may have a very ‘low’ accidental gun-death rate, but the rate of all gun deaths is 50% higher than the national rate.  Which doesn’t make the efforts of Safe Tennessee in any way irrelevant to health and welfare in the Volunteer State.  To the contrary, they have important work to do, Health Department data screw-ups or not.

Are Safe Guns Finally Here? The President Just Gave Them A Big Push.

The man who still lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has just unveiled his plan to move forward with ‘smart gun’ technology, and while the Devil is always in the details and I’m not sure that all the details have been worked out, some of the hurdles that previously stymied the development of smart guns seem to have been anticipated and overcome.

bomberThe idea of electronically preventing someone other than the qualified owner from using a gun has been floating around for more than twenty years, but a combination of gun industry resistance, the usual bureaucratic inertia and consumer disinterest has kept this stuff on the back shelf. The biggest issue is not whether the technology works per se, but whether a workable ‘smart’ technology can be added to a gun without seriously impacting the retail price. I have heard different numbers from various ‘smart gun’ inventors and entrepreneurs, but all I know is that the one market-ready gun, the Armatix iP1, has a retail tag in excess of $1,600; in other words, fuggedaboutit.

The Obama plan surmounts this problem somewhat by approaching the entire issue from the perspective of developing a new law-enforcement technology and using federal funds both to help develop the product as well as to subsidize police agencies that might then adopt the gun.  The good news is that the civilian gun market is very much influenced by what the cops carry and buy, the bad news is that a subsidized police price doesn’t necessarily translate into an over-the-counter deal that will being gunnies into to my shop.

Leaving that issue aside for the moment, what impresses me most of all about this plan is the decision to create a bone-fide procurement process that reminds me of when the Army junked the Colt 1911 pistol back in the mid-70’s and went to the Beretta M9. First they figured out what they wanted, then they issued an RFP, then they ran a proof test to make sure that submitted guns actually met the design requirements and worked, then they got serious and did the requisite torture tests at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds to validate that the gun wouldn’t fall apart after it was shot thousands of times, dropped into water and sand, in other words replicating what happens to any military weapon that is carried in the field.

From what I can see in the White House report, a similar plan has been developed for smart guns, which will have to get through two test phases before the technology is considered to work. Entry requirements for the competition, however, do not specify what type of gun is permitted, nor the caliber of ammunition. Nor has the NIJ published the pass-fail criteria for the second and much more rigorous test phase.  So this initiative is still focused on testing the technology rather than testing a specific gun that might be adopted by law enforcement agencies. The “baseline requirements” for such a weapon (or weapons) will be determined following the Phase 2 test results.

If a technology exists that will meet the rigorous performance criteria that will no doubt be adopted, I am sure that we will see some product being carried by a few cops on a provisional basis by the end of the year.  But if the purpose of smart guns is to diminish gun accidents caused by an unqualified individual grabbing a gun, the number of such shootings involving law enforcement personnel is a tiny fraction of the accidental civilian shootings that take place every year. Which means that the issue of commercial market penetration must still be addressed.

On the other hand, it was nice to see the NRA’s positive response to this report which I quote: “At a time when we are actively fighting terrorists at home and abroad, this administration would rather focus the military’s efforts on the president’s gun control agenda.”  Now when do you think the NRA wrote that one?

Will CAP Laws And Safe Storage Keep Guns Safe? I’m Not So Sure.

Yesterday comes the news out of Michigan that a 12-year old, mentally-impaired boy, who took a shotgun out of his grandfather’s gun safe, pulled the trigger and killed a pregnant, 28-year old woman sleeping in a different room in the same house, will now be charged with careless discharge of a firearm.  The sentence could involve fines and/or placement in a juvenile facility. According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Michigan is one of 23 states that does not have a child access prevention law (CAP), which means that a kid who had no idea what he was doing gets charged in this death and grandpa, who owned the gun, gets off scot free.

gun safe                Every week or so the media seems to carry another story about a youngster who somehow manages to grab a gun and kill or wound someone else.  Probably the recent episode that garnered the most media attention was the shooting of Veronica Rutledge by her 2-year old son in an Idaho Wal Mart; Mom had a pistol in her handbag, turned away for a sec and – bam!  Rutledge was alleged to be a trained shooter who carried a gun for self-defense.  Some self-defense.

In 2013, the CDC estimates that 538 kids under 14 were unintentionally injured by guns and another 69 are estimated to have lost their lives because someone accidentally shot off a gun.  THE CDC also reports that 625 kids 14 years or younger died from drowning and 1,345 youngsters lost their lives in accidents involving trucks or cars. I’m not saying the deaths of 69 children for any reason should be ignored; I’m just trying to put it into perspective as regards the issue of safe guns.

Even though we don’t have exact data on how many children kill or maim themselves or others with guns, every time it happens we get the chorus about locking up or locking away the guns. The issue of gun safety needs to be understood beyond the degree to which young children are injured or killed because when we look at total unintentional firearm mortality and morbidity for all ages, the numbers dramatically change. Accidental gun deaths jump to 505; for non-fatal gun injuries the toll is 16,864. This latter figure, to quote one of my street friends, is serious sh*t.  And it would be a lot more serious were it not for skilled trauma surgeons who somehow manage to bring many shooting victims back from the dead.

The problem with relying on CAP laws and safe storage is that most unintentional shootings occur not because a little kid grabs a gun, but because the owner or one of his friends does something impulsive or dumb while the gun is being used in a lawful and legal way. In 2013, there were 2,590 unintentional gun injury victims ages 15 to 19, but nearly 2,000 of these victims were 18 years old, which meant that they were lawfully able to use a gun.  The gun accident rate for the 18-19 age group was 22.74, drops to 9.38 for ages 20-35, to 7.82 for ages 35-44 and down to 3.16 for ages 45-54.  This decrease in gun accident rates moving up the age scale is exactly what we find in rates by age bracket for accidents involving cars.

Everyone is in favor of using guns safely; the NRA talks about it all the time. What nobody wants to face, however, is the simple fact that when you have 300 million dangerous weapons floating around, a certain number are going to be used every day in stupid and senseless ways.  If CAP laws and safe storage prevented every unintentional gun injury to children, the overall deaths and injuries would drop by 3 percent.  CAP laws and gun locks are necessary, but they don’t really respond to the fact that 300 million extremely lethal weapons are owned by humans, and at some time or another every one of us will be careless or forget.