How Gun Accidents Happen
There are few things that annoy me more than the Gun Anecdote Wars. In a nation of 314 million people, with about 300 million guns distributed among maybe 35-40 percent of the population, there are going to be lots of gun-related incidents. Some people will have accidents. Some people will use guns to defend themselves. It is absolutely unsurprising that projects like GunFAIL and Armed Citizen find plenty of newspaper stories that fit their narratives. Addressing these topics in a serious way requires things like, you know, numbers, and then division with those numbers.
A helpful thing about GunFAIL, however, is that with some coding effort its anecdotes can be turned into data. In my view it's beyond dispute that gun accidents are incredibly rare statistically -- see my previous writing here and here -- but both policymakers and potential gun owners might want to know how these incidents break down. Are they freak accidents, the result of everyday stupidity, the product of extreme recklessness, or what?
I went through the final GunFAIL update released in each of the last three months -- here, here, and here -- and coded a total of more than 100 injuries and deaths based on the descriptions provided. Obviously, this data set will reflect any biases of GunFAIL, the media sources it relies on, and the time of the year I chose (hunting accidents are probably overrepresented). Biggest of all, my own coding was very subjective, and I encourage people to check out my spreadsheet, with quick descriptions of the cases, here.
Of the 109 incidents not involving access to firearms by children 12 or younger, I would consider only ten to be freak accidents -- cases in which someone caused a discharge by, e.g., falling down or dropping a gun that was not drop-safe. Even some of these cases were questionable -- one dropping incident happened in a Sam's Club and the gun was in a bag, for example. It shouldn't have gone off, but why was it in a bag in a Sam's Club?
Another 15 were cases of what I'd consider extremely reckless conduct -- things like driving drunk while handling a weapon, deliberately pointing a thought-to-be-unloaded weapon at another person and pulling the trigger, and opening fire at a "rustling noise" while hunting.
Meanwhile, 59 of the incidents seemed to result from more typical violations of gun-safety protocol -- failing to make sure a gun is unloaded before cleaning it; failing to exercise care while loading, unloading, or holstering; being careless with a gun because it's "unloaded"; and so on. A few people shot family members thinking they were intruders or animals.
The remaining situations are unclear -- the reports simply say a gun accident occurred but do not provide enough details to make a decision. Here's a breakdown of the incidents I did categorize:
There were also eleven incidents involving children 12 and under who accessed guns. The details are a bit fuzzy here and there, but only one of these cases definitely involved supervised gun access (a kid hunting with his dad shot himself in the foot), and none involved unauthorized access to guns that were locked. The rest of the incidents involved young children who were apparently allowed to use guns unsupervised, or young children who happened upon guns that were apparently not secured. I think it's silly for people like Justin Peters of Slate to spend so much time obsessing over child gun accidents, but they're right that in most cases the parents should be held accountable.
So, what to take away from this? As someone who's spent a lot of time around guns -- my father was a police officer while I was growing up, I've been hunting deer since I was twelve, and I have a concealed-carry permit -- without ever seeing an accidental discharge, I find it pretty encouraging. Not only are gun accidents rare to begin with, but when they happen, they overwhelmingly happen because people were not following the rules. Someone who's careful doesn't need to panic about the idea of having a gun in the house -- they just need to keep being careful.
Of course, the other side of this is that not everyone is careful all the time. So at the very least, we can thank GunFAIL for showing us the consequences of a momentary lapse when a gun is around.
Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen