Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Public Health

Unintentional Firearm Deaths: Can They Be Reduced by Lowering Gun Ownership Levels?

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Public Health

Unintentional Firearm Deaths: Can They Be Reduced by Lowering Gun Ownership Levels?

Article excerpt

Firearm-related deaths are a leading cause of injury-related premature mortality. In the United States, wounds inflicted by a firearm are second only to motor vehicle crashes as a cause of death stemming from an injury.1 In Canada, too, a study conducted in 1991 showed that the risk of death from a firearm discharge rivaled that resulting from a motor vehicle accident 2.37 deaths per 10,000 firearms versus 2.4 deaths per 10,000 motor vehicles - despite the fact that cars are used for transportation far more often than firearms are used for recreational purposes.2

The longstanding debate about gun control has largely focused on the problem of intentional harm: suicide and lethal criminal violence inflicted with firearms. However, gun ownership may also pose a threat to human health and life through unintentional injuries and deaths.

Unintentional firearm deaths (UFDs) constitute a fairly modest proportion of all firearm deaths: on average, there are approximately 50 incidents per year in Canada. However, hospitalization data indicate that there are at least 10 times as many nonfatal injuries each year due to an accidental firearm discharge.3 A Manitoba study also found the ratio of nonfatal to fatal cases to be 10:1.4 Furthermore, a US study revealed that there may be more than two cases requiring outpatient treatment for every case requiring hospitalization.5 One reason for concern about the problem of UFDs is the youthfulness of many victims. Between 1979 and 1988, fully one quarter of UFD victims in Canada were under 15 years of age and another 30% were between 15 and 24 years of age.2

As in the case of violent crime and suicide by firearms, fierce debate rages around the question of the factors responsible for UFDs. Are these incidents unavoidable accidents, the result of recklessness on the part of the shooter; or is opportunity, in the form of the availability and accessibility of firearms, a significant factor?

The present Canadian study examined the extent to which opportunity, as measured by provincial firearm ownership levels, explains UFDs. While access to firearms is an intuitively appealing explanation, Kleck6,7 argues that UFDs are not simply accidents but tend to arise from recklessness. He argues that shooters in unintentional incidents are disproportionately involved in car crashes and violent behaviour, often have been drinking prior to the incident, and tend to be drawn from demographic groups that are over-represented in intentional violent behaviour (e.g., young males).6,7

Studies conducted in the United States, Sweden, and Canada, however, show that alcohol usually is involved in less than a third of all UFDs and that incidents of recklessness, in the form of playing with guns, tend to account for just a small fraction of cases.4,8-13 Cases involving children usually result from the improper storage of firearms.14,15 The majority of unintentional gunshot wounds (whether fatal or nonfatal) tend to involve routine gun-related activities and errors - such as cleaning, loading/unloading, showing or carrying a gun, poor maintenance, and unsafe handling - rather than recklessness.4,16

Trend analyses and international comparisons are somewhat contradictory in terms of the role of firearm availability. Most industrialized countries, including Canada and the US, show a steady decline in the rate of UFDs over the past few years,17 often without a corresponding decline in ownership levels or the gun stock.7,18 The most obvious conclusion is that UFDs are not influenced by availability. However, UFDs may also have declined because of design improvements, better safety practices, changes in the demographic profile of owners, and long-term improvements in emergency care and in the treatment of gunshot wounds.19 While fatalities have dropped, there is no firm evidence that firearm accidents as a whole have declined.

Cross-national studies have tended to reveal significant associations between gun ownership levels and UFDs. …

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