Unintentional gun injuries in the US decline by 20 percent during the National Rifle Association’s annual convention, according to a new study in The New England Journal of Medicine. Since NRA meetings attract enthusiasts who pride themselves on firearm safety, the findings challenge the belief that most unintentional gun injuries result from inexperience and lack of training.
“Fewer people using guns means fewer gun injuries, which in some ways is not surprising,” said co-author Anupam Jena of Harvard Medical School, in a statement. “But the drop in gun injuries during these large meetings attended by thousands of well-trained gun owners seems to refute the idea that gun injuries stem solely from lack of experience and training in gun use.”
This isn’t the first time physicians have sounded the alarm about the risk of unintentional gun injuries. The American Academy of Pediatrics has been pushing for gun control since at least 1992. In response to a 2014 bid by AAP to ban semiautomatic weapons, NRA spokesperson Catherine Mortensen cited the NRA’s Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program, which teaches kids about gun safety. “The fact is, no one does more to promote gun safety, education, and training than the National Rifle Association,” she told The Daily Beast. “And if these pediatricians want to help us promote that message, we would welcome their membership in the NRA. Dues are 25 dollars a year.”
Despite the NRA’s gun safety programs, however, American children are 17 times more likely to be murdered by firearms than children in other industrialized nations. And studies suggest that easy access to firearms at home doubles the risk of homicide and triples the risk of suicide among each family member. So there’s certainly reason to suspect that NRA membership dues and firearm safety courses aren’t enough to protect kids from unintentional gun injuries.
“Even individuals who are presumably trained and experienced in the use of firearms are still at risk of firearm injury,” Jena told Fatherly. “Firing a gun is like driving a car. Even if you’re an experienced driver, you’re always at risk of having a traffic accident. The same is true for guns.”
However logical, until now there was no empirical evidence that experienced gun owners were part of the problem. And the NRA maintains that, as long as responsible owners are the ones holding the guns, firearms pose minimal risk of unintentional injury. To test the NRA’s theory, Jena and colleagues collected insurance records from 75,567,650 people who visited emergency rooms during an NRA convention, or within three weeks of an annual meeting, between 2007 and 2015.
Although they found no difference between the proportion of crimes involving a firearm before, after, and during conventions, they found a 20 percent decline in unintentional injuries during meetings. “We looked at data from about 75 million emergency room visits, and found that the proportion of visits that involved a gun injury was about 20 percent lower on the dates of NRA conventions,” Jena says. “Guns are inherently unsafe objects, but some would argue that gun injuries are really uncommon in the hands of experienced users with adequate training.”
“That view is disputed by our findings.”
Jena and colleagues caution that their study cannot demonstrate true causation and that their observational analysis does not prove that meeting attendance impacts injury rates. And it’s important to note that a 20 percent decline in unintentional injury rates around NRA conventions is not as impressive as it sounds. They estimate an injury rate of 1.49 per 100,000 people before and after conventions and a 20 percent lower rate of 1.19 per 100,000 during conventions.
Not that this is an insignificant figure when translated into actual injuries.
“A useful statistic to consider is how many more injuries we would have observed had 80,000 people not gone to the NRA convention,” Jena says. “Probably several hundred, based on the estimates from our paper.”
Either way, the findings suggest that even avid gun users, well-schooled in firearm safety, are involved in a significant number of unintentional firearm injuries. For parents who keep guns in their homes, the findings should be a wake-up call. “It’s important to realize the trade-offs you’re making,” Jena says. “If you’re assuming there’s no risk, that’s the wrong assumption. There’s risk inherent in keeping a gun in your household, even among individuals who are trained and experienced.”