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.
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.