Are We Safe By Locking Up Or Locking Away The Guns? I’m Not So Sure.

Every week, if not more frequently, the media carries yet another story about a young kid who kills himself or someone else, often a parent, with a gun.  And I’m not talking ‘young kids’ as in twelve year olds.  I’m talking like young kids who have not yet reached the age of five.

Last year, a few days after Chsristmas, a two-year old got into his mother’s pocketbook while she was shopping in a Walmart, yanked out her Smith & Wesson pistol that she was carrying for self-defense, pulled the trigger and shot her dead. A month later in New Mexico the victims were a father and mother whose three-year-old son shot them both in a motel.  It’s really gruesome when this kind of shooting takes place but it seems to happen all the time.

gun safe                When it comes to this kind of gun violence, everyone in the gun debate appears to be on the same side, at least up to a point. The GVP community wants mandatory CAP laws extended to every state; the gun gang is opposed to any mandatory legal fix, but never lets a day go by without reminding us that they have distributed more than 36 million locks and kits that teach young shooters how to be safe around guns.  Is there a single medical organization or pro-gun group that hasn’t come out one way or the other in favor of locking up or locking away the guns?

With all due respect to the honest energies and safety concerns on both sides of the gun debate, I happen to think that the ‘lock ‘em up, lock ‘em away’ approach to gun safety is a little bit beside the point.  Or to put it another way, to promote gun safety with trigger locks and safe storage is kind of like using an elephant to swat a flea.  Here are the numbers.  According to the CDC, in 2013 there were 505 unintentional deaths and 16,864 non-fatal injuries involving guns.  Of these totals, 69 kids under the age of 15 were accidentally shot to death, 538 under the age of 15 were injured fooling around with a gun.  If every civilian-owned gun in the United States was locked up or locked every night, and every loaded gun that wasn’t secured was kept away from every kid, the death and injury toll from gun accidents would drop by slightly more than 3 percent! And please, please don’t start with how every human life is sacred and should be spared.  I’m not talking about theology or compassion, I’m talking about whether the policies we adopt for dealing with a medical condition which kills or injures more than 17,000 Americans each year are policies that will yield results.

Know why people accidentally wound or injure themselves or others with a gun each year?  Because we are human beings, and as human beings we are prone to make mistakes, do stupid things, act in careless ways or are just plain dumb.  Want the best example I can find?  Take a look at this video of a cop buying an off-duty gun with which he shot himself in the hand:

Stupid #1: Clerk didn’t check to see if the gun was loaded.

Stupid #2: Cop didn’t check either.

Stupid #3: Cop points gun at someone else.

Stupid #4: Cop sticks his hand in front of the barrel.

Stupid #5: Cop accidentally drops mag and at the same time shoots off the gun.

 

Now go back, watch the video again, and while it’s rolling repeat these words: Pledge, practice, promote firearm safety. Say it a couple of more times while the video rolls again. Know what you just said?  You just said the Glock Firearm Safety Pledge.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve never advocated banning guns and I never will.  But anyone who thinks that with 300 million lethal weapons floating around we are going to prevent 17,000 people from behaving like jerks each and every year doesn’t know anything about guns. Or about jerks.

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What Was Different About The Shooting in Hayden? A Lot.

If you are concerned about gun violence, then sooner or later you’ll have to spend some time looking at the extraordinary data collected by the CDC and housed in an online repository known as the National Violent Death Reporting System, aka the NVDRS. The data only covers reports from 32 states, many of them recently added, but it is so rich and so comprehensive as regards gun mortality and morbidity that it simply cannot be neglected by anyone who wants to go beyond the headlines of the gun debate and understand the issues from an objective point of view.

You can save yourself a lot of time and energy (as well as cutting through the bureaucratic red-tape that is often required to get access to the raw data) by simply accessing the relevant Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports (MMWR) published by the CDC based on information from the NVDRS.  The data in the NVDRS is valuable because it is drawn largely from coroner’s reports, which are not only extremely detailed as regards the circumstances of the injury, but also tend to be comprehensive because coroners must report to state health departments which then report directly to the CDC.  I am constantly surprised at how much critical information, like national incomes, population and employment are based on estimates, rather than comprehensive numbers.  The NVDRS, on the other hand, is the real McCoy.

hayden                Following the bizarre incident in the Hayden, ID Wal-Mart, where a two-year old evidently discharged his mother’s concealed handgun, instantly killing her, I decided to look at this not from the vague media reports coming from the scene, not based on a few, online messages from grieving relatives and friends, and certainly not from the pronouncements that will now follow about ‘responsibility,’ ‘safety,’ ‘a learning moment,’ or any of the other bromides that have already begun to circulate about an event which we have witnessed many times before and will no doubt witness many times again. Rather, I want to see what I can learn about the death of Veronica Rutledge by comparing what I know and don’t know about her demise to the data on such events collected by the NVDRS and published by the CDC.

The last MMWR on unintentional gun deaths covers 16 states who reported data in 2010. Two of the states, like Idaho, were Western states (Utah and Colorado), several others were Mid-western states (Michigan and Ohio), five were Southeastern states, in other words, a good mix.  Unintentional firearm deaths were less than 1% of all gun mortality (97% were suicides and homicides) which would be about par if we had data for all 50 states.  An unintentional firearm death is defined as “a death that results from a penetrating injury or gunshot wound from a weapon that uses a powder charge to fire a projectile and for which a preponderance of evidence indicates that the shooting was not directed intentionally at the decedent.” Now I’m sorry if this is all very dry and somewhat obtuse but again, that’s what research into gun violence is all about. And it’s clear from the little bit that we know from Hayden, at least we can assume that the shooter in this case did not intentionally discharge the gun.

Here are some additional comparisons between Hayden and the unintentional gun deaths analyzed for 16 states in 2010.  December was the lowest month for these incidents which makes the event in Hayden somewhat rare.  In 2010 there was not a single, unintentional gun death in a public store, with two-thirds taking place in homes.  More than 60% of the incidents involved handguns and three-quarters of the victims were White, but only 15% were women. Three-quarters of the shootings occurred because the gun went off “accidentally” or some other “mechanical” event took place.

To sum up:  Accidental shootings don’t usually take place in December, they don’t involve women as victims and they don’t occur in public space.  So what was a woman doing walking through WalMart during the Christmas holidays with a loaded gun?

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