Afraid of Science?
Are Gun Accidents 'Very Rare'?
Yesterday, at CNN.com, I offered two proposals to enhance gun safety that would not require a vote of Congress: (1) a Surgeon General's report on the health hazards of guns in the home; (2) a congressional investigation of the safety practices of the gun industry.
Robert VerBruggen offered a substantial reply at National Review Online.
Before responding in my turn, there's a threshold point that must be stressed and then stressed again. At one point in his reply, Robert dismissively describes one study of gun safety as a "tiny phone survey" "conducted in 1996." And of course … he's right! A lot of the most important data in the gun debate is unsatisfactory and is out-of-date.
There's a reason for that, and the reason is that the gun advocates themselves passed a law through Congress almost 20 years ago forbidding the use of federal research dollars to study gun safety. It's audacious for the people who have done everything in their power to suppress the evidence now to complain about the poor quality of the evidence as exists. Their determination to suppress the evidence is itself the strongest clue as to which way the evidence points.
But let's deal with what we have.
The core of Robert's case comes down to two claims:
Claim 1: There isn't much of a safety problem with guns. Or, in Robert's words: "The fact is that gun accidents are statistically very rare — and even this information isn’t all that helpful without an estimate of armed self-defense to compare it with."
How rare is "very rare"? In 2007, the United States suffered some 15,000-19,000 accidental shootings. More than 600 of these shootings proved fatal. Is that "very rare"?
The total number of Americans killed and wounded by gun accidents exceeds the total number killed or injured in fires.
The number killed in gun accidents is 20% higher than the total number killed in all U.S. civil aviation accidents.
In 2011, the Consumer Product Safety Commission voted to ban drop-side baby cribs because these cribs have been blamed for "dozens" of infant deaths over the entire previous decade. The 600+ accidental gun deaths in any single year amount to 50 dozen.
Back when the Centers for Disease Control were allowed to do gun research, they found that American children under age 15 were nine times more likely to die of a gun accident than children in other advanced wealthy countries.
The Centers for Disease Control reserve the term "very rare" for accidental deaths from vaccines, the number of which is zero, or close to it. If more than 600 people a year were dying from vaccines, we'd have a national uproar, if not a revolution.
Instead, we have a lively YouTube category of "funny gun accidents":
Of course, guns in the home are also associated with higher rates of suicides and suicide attempts, not to mention homicides and assaults as well. About 200 Americans go to emergency rooms every day with gunshot wounds. On present trends, by 2015 more Americans will die from firearms - homicide, suicide, and accident - than from automobile accidents.
"Very rare" is not the term I'd use for all this.
Claim 2: The gun industry responsibly sells safe products. VerBruggen: "Most modern handguns - especially those designed to be carried - are drop-safe." "Some accidents might be caused by confusion about whether there's a bullet in the chamber." "Serial number filing isn't very effective."
As you can see, words like "most," "some," and "very" are doing the heavy lifting in all these sentences. Let's try this line of argument with other products.
"Most modern aircraft don't crash due to battery fires."
"Most store-brand packaged foods are not rancid."
"Some accidents might be caused by the truck's tendency to flip over at high speeds."
"Cigarette advertising aimed at children is not very effective."
Would Congress accept that line of excuse from any other product or industry? Surely Congress would say, "No aircraft should crash because of battery fires." "Stores shouldn't sell any rancid products." "Trucks should not flip over, period." "Cigarette advertising aimed at children should not occur at all."
Yet when it comes to the most lethal of all consumer products, suddenly Congress becomes super-indulgent of industry fallibility. It would be a bold pharmaceutical executive who said that we didn't need child-proof bottles because it was a parent's responsibility to teach her 7 year old to stay away from the medicine chest. Yet that's just the answer we hear after incidents like yesterday's tragedy in Decatur, Ohio, when a 9 year old boy was shot in the head by his 13 year old sister.
Nobody would suggest that better product design could prevent all gun accidents. I'm certainly not suggesting it. But it's true that the most popular range of handguns in the United States, Glock, is sold without a usable visual indicator of a bullet in the chamber.
And it's equally true that again and again the industry and its representatives lend their clout to protect wrongdoers against the public.
Under [federal] law, investigators cannot reveal federal firearms tracing information that shows how often a dealer sells guns that end up seized in crimes. The law effectively shields retailers from lawsuits, academic study and public scrutiny. It also keeps the spotlight off the relationship between rogue gun dealers and the black market in firearms.
Such information used to be available under a simple Freedom of Information Act request. But seven years ago, under pressure from the gun lobby, Congress blacked out the information by passing the so-called Tiahrt amendment, named for Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.). The law removed from the public record a government database that traces guns recovered in crimes back to the dealers.
"It was extraordinary, and the most offensive thing you can think of," said Chuck Wexler, director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit group for police chiefs. "The tracing data, which is now secret, helped us see the big picture of where guns are coming from."
Who pushes for laws like these? How do they justify themselves? It would be a public service to investigate such questions under oath in the open sunlight.