The perpetual, raging American debate on gun control tends to focus on homicides, even more narrowly on mass shootings, and rarely on suicides (which alone account for 60 percent of gun deaths). Far less reported are unintentional shootings, which between 2005 and 2010 killed nearly 3,800 people—which, while a likely undercount, is still over 12 times greater than the combined rates for 22 similarly high-income nations.
These statistics come from a new edition of Dennis A. Henigan’s book, “Guns Don’t Kill People, People Kill People” and Other Myths About Guns and Gun Control, which compares our failed attempts at gun control to the success of policies aimed at the automobile. Over the past 50 years, as Henigan points out, “the number of motor-vehicle fatalities per mile driven has dropped more than 80 percent.” And in 2015, for the first time in more than 60 years, Americans died from contact with firearms and cars at the same rate—making the lessons of the auto industry’s reform an even more timely example for the gun lobby.
In arguing against gun control laws, the NRA and the gun industry often point out, quite correctly, that the accidental firearm death rate has been decreasing over time. The NRA attributes the decline to its own “voluntary firearms safety training, not government intrusion,” while offering no evidence that a higher percentage of gun owners receive such training now than in earlier periods or that such training is more effective now than before. Harvard’s David Hemenway cites other likely factors, including a rising American standard of living, improvements in emergency medicine, increasing suburbanization, and a sharp decline in the number of hunters, particularly young hunters, who are at highest risk for accidental shootings. Perhaps the most significant factor is the parallel trend toward fewer households with guns, from a peak of 54 percent in 1977 to 32 percent in 2014. Whatever the reasons for the decline in accidental shootings, the trend is hardly a good reason to oppose policies that will accelerate the trend and save even more lives. Should the government not have required cars to have air bags because mandatory installation of seat belts had already reduced auto deaths?
If the NRA is right and “voluntary” safety training accounts for the decline in accidental gun fatalities, wouldn’t even more accidents be prevented if the training were mandatory for every gun owner? If cars are sufficiently dangerous to require safety training in order to drive, then aren’t guns sufficiently dangerous to require such training of prospective gun owners? Mandatory gun training that included a “safe storage” component could be especially important in reducing the risk of gun accidents involving young people. Operator manuals provided by manufacturers with new guns typically advise gun owners to store their guns locked and unloaded, with the ammunition stored separate from the gun. Research shows that compliance with this advice substantially lowers the risk of unintentional shootings involving adolescents and children. Why shouldn’t safe storage be part of mandatory gun-safety training?
Excerpted from “Guns Don’t Kill People, People Kill People” And Other Myths About Guns and Gun Control by Dennis A. Henigan (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with Permission from Beacon Press.