If The NRA Really Believes That Their Gun Safety Programs Work, Shouldn’t They Be Willing To Prove It?

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Since 1999 there has been a nearly 30% decline in accidental gun deaths, with a 50% drop in deaths for children under 19.  This is a remarkable decrease in unintentional gun mortality when you consider that during the same fifteen years, the civilian gun arsenal has probably increased by nearly 50%.  So what’s going on? Are gun owners becoming more careful with their guns?  Are gun manufacturers making guns that are more resistant to accidental discharges? Are gun safety programs working beyond anyone’s wildest dreams?

docs versus glocks              If you listen to the NRA and the NSSF, they’ll tell you that their safety programs are simply the best and most effective that they can be.  The NSSF runs a program called ChildSafe, which they claim is responsible for sending more than 36 million safety “kits” to more than 15,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide.  The kits basically consist of a little brochure and a gun lock which are then handed out free of charge by the cops to anyone who walks through the door.  The NSSF also sponsors occasional safety programs at participating retailers like BassPro, and has produced some thoroughly stupid videos telling parents how to sit around the dinner table and talk to their kids about guns.

The NRA safety program, Eddie Eagle, has been around since 1988, and its safety pamphlets and other teaching aids have “reached” 28 million schoolchildren, whatever the word ‘reached’ actually means.  I’ll tell you what it means.  It means that someone in Fairfax has mailed out 28 million pieces of paper to various schools around the United States. Maybe not just to schools; maybe to summer camps, maybe to the local VFW, maybe to this or that shooting range, maybe to who knows where. Back in 1991 a graduate nursing student looked at some gun safety programs and judged Eddie Eagle to have all the necessary content to teach good gun safety rules to kids.  There was only one little problem: the author also stated that there had never been any study which could determine whether Eddie Eagle was effective as a teaching tool.

And that’s why programs like ChildSafe and Eddie Eagle can’t be taken seriously, for the simple reason that mailing out some literature on anything doesn’t mean that anyone actually received it, or read it, or changed their behavior in any way at all.  The fact that safety brochures were being mailed to schools and gun locks were being mailed to police departments and gun mortality declined during the same years may appear to represent some kind of cause and effect, but nobody has ever conducted a study to see if these two factors are connected in any way, shape or form.  And this connection becomes even more problematic when we include non-fatal shootings over the same period of years.

When we examine non-fatal accidental shootings, the five-year average between 2001-2006 and 2009-2013 drops by a whopping 7%.  And remember how gun mortality for kids declined by 50%?  For this same age group in terms of non-fatal accidents the number has basically remained the same since 2003. Now you can’t tell me that people who shoot themselves accidentally are aiming at less lethal parts of their bodies.  What’s happening is that the same medical advances which result each year in a higher proportion of non-fatal gun assaults to fatal gun assaults is making unintentional gun injuries less lethal as well.

The NRA uses its Eddie Eagle program, among other things, to fight against doctors who want to caution patients about the risks presented by guns.  They argue that a more effective process would be for doctors to distribute Eddie Eagle brochures. I would be the first person to stand up and loudly proclaim that Eddie Eagle should be adopted by every physician once the NRA conducts a valid before-and-after analysis to determine whether the program actually works. But don’t hold your breath – you may turn blue long before the NRA responds.

Want To Do Something About Gun Violence? There’s A Meeting For You On November 3rd.


I was born in Washington, DC and one of my earliest memories was being taken by my mother to a concert at the resplendent National Cathedral, the towering Gothic  edifice which until the recent re-making of downtown, used to be one of the tallest building in our Nation’s Capitol. The ‘cathedral,’ as we all used to call it, was much more than the seat of Washington’s Episcopal Diocese; it was also a site that attracted visitors worldwide and had been the venue for many events that symbolized what America was all about.

Some Presidents , including both Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, journeyed up Massachusetts Avenue following their inaugurations to participate in prayer, other Presidents – Ford, Eisenhower – lay in repose at the Cathedral following their deaths.  Although the Constitution still gives everyone the right to follow whatever religion we choose, or not to follow any religion for that matter, the Congress designated the Cathedral as the “national house of prayer,” and what the Rev. Eugene Sutton called a “soaring, majestic place” still evokes the same wonderment in me today as it did when I walked into the building for the first time as a six-year old little boy.

cathedral                Leaving aside its historical, architectural and spiritual significance for a moment, the Cathedral has also not shied away from confronting public issues which impact all of us from day to day. And if you believe there’s any public issue that demands our attention more than the issue of gun violence, don’t waste your time trying to convince me that I’m barking up the wrong tree.  I’m not saying there aren’t other issues that need to be addressed, but gun violence is the only public problem for which a loud and incessant chorus repeats ad nauseum that no issue exists at all. There’s no gun violence according to the NRA; there’s no gun violence according to the NSSF.  In fact, the NSSF was just awarded a $2.4 million DOJ grant to help them continue their “effective” Project Chlldsafe program which is so effective that unintentional gun deaths and injuries have increased over the last few years.

If the National Cathedral is the nation’s house of prayer, it also functions as the nation’s public conscience.  There is no religious organization that has been as consistently and publicly concerned about equality, promoting freedom of choice and freedom of being over all racial, religious and gender lines.  In fact, the very last pulpit from which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a sermon before he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet was the pulpit at the National Cathedral.  The Cathedral was the scene of lively debates about wars in Viet Nam and Iraq; its leadership, both religious and lay, spoke out about the injustices of Abu Ghirab and the Cathedral sponsors an ongoing initiative to help veterans overcome the wounds of war.

And now the Cathedral will become a focal point for voicing concerns about gun violence when they sponsor a national forum on gun violence scheduled for Tuesday, November 3rd.  The meeting will bring together all the different constituencies who want to see some “common-sense” solutions put into place: political leaders, advocates, public policy experts and, most important of all, victims and survivors of gun violence themselves.  There will be a webcast, exhibits and tables run by the advocacy groups; it’s an opportunity to strengthen and extend the concerns we all share about putting an end to the senseless and destructive use of guns.

I just looked at the latest video treats offered by the NRA, It’s a series called Freedom

Safest Place and it features some of our country’s most notable freedom-fighters like felon Oliver North and home-schooling expert Dana Loesch.  I don’t notice that anyone who was injured with a gun ever comes out on behalf of the NRA.  Isn’t it funny how the victims of gun violence always seem to end up on the other side of the debate?   And that’s the reason why the people who come to the National Cathedral on November 3rd will ultimately win.


Want To Teach Kids Gun Safety? The NSSF’s New Video Doesn’t.

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Ever since Sandy Hook, the gun industry has decided that safety is its middle name.  And chief among the proponents of this new strategy is the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which has taken upon itself the mission of pushing gun safety messages to kids who aren’t yet old enough to own or purchase guns, but it’s never too early to start cultivating the next generation of consumers.  You’ll pardon me for sounding just a tad sarcastic in this commentary, but this new-found concern about safety issues is interesting, given the fact that gun design hasn’t really changed in the last 125 years.  In other words, guns are as lethal and dangerous now as when the invention of smokeless-powder cartridges in the 1880s allowed gun makers to design small arms that could fire multiple rounds without having to be reloaded after every shot.

But what’s interesting about the new attention to safety being paid by the gun industry is that the notion that guns might be potentially dangerous no matter how they are used is a concept that is remarkably absent from the NSSF’s safety campaign, even though the campaign’s name, Project Childsafe, does beg the question of what exactly are we trying to keep the children safe from?

lock2                To the credit of the gun manufacturers, you may have to read the fine print, but they don’t beat around the bush when it comes to telling a gun owner the truth about the product he just bought.  For example, the instructional manual issued by Smith & Wesson for its old warhorse, the Model 10, K-frame revolver, states that “this firearm is classified as a dangerous weapon.”  The manual that accompanies Ruger’s Mini-14 rifle is even more explicit, stating in big, bold red letters – FIREARMS ARE DANGEREOUS WEAPONS – a warning that has not deterred me from owning three of them.

The risk posed by a gun, however, seems to be lost on the folks who produce safety videos for the NSSF.  The most recent is a bouncy, joyful message from a veteran, competitive shooter, hunter and mom named Julie Golob, whose family shares a love of the heritage, outdoors and the shooting sports; in other words, all the right credentials to be considered an expert on how to communicate with children on any subject, let alone safety and guns.  The video goes on to showcase a few cutesy testimonials from what is now the standard racial and gender inclusive group of kids, who relate how their parents did or didn’t talk to them about guns.  At which point Julie reappears and chants the usual refrain borrowed from the NRA’s phony safety program, Eddie Eagle, about not touching the gun – leaving the area – telling an adult, which is then followed by a new lyric for the older kids involving telling them never to touch a gun unless being supervised by an adult, never point a gun at anyone and always assume that every gun is loaded.

Oh, by the way, Julie doesn’t forget to mention that guns should be locked or locked away. As she puts it, parents have to set a “talk the talk and walk the walk” example.  The video runs 5 minutes, 37 seconds, and the entire comment about safe storage, which is the only way to keep guns away from kids no matter how many times you tell them not to touch a firearm, consumes a total of 8 seconds.  In other words, the only valid statement about gun safety in this entire message takes up 2% of the message.

As I said at the beginning of this commentary, you’ll have to excuse me from sounding a bit sarcastic.  But when the organization which represents the gun industry in every legislative and public discussion about gun safety can produce a public service announcement that is, to put it bluntly, an exercise in cheap hucksterism, then when it comes to safety the gun industry is inviting itself not to be taken very seriously.

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More Guns Versus Less Guns: Americans Want It Both Ways

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Several weeks ago I posted a column about the latest Gallup poll which showed that, for the first time, 60% of respondents believed that home was safer with a gun.  I also noted that since the percentage of respondents reporting gun ownership was below 45%, that obviously many non-gun owners shared the belief that guns made people more, not less safe.  Philip Cook then sent me an article that raised interesting issues about the validity of gun polling data, so I went back and looked at all of the Gallup polls on guns, which number more than 40 different topics comprising nearly 300 separate polls, and what I said last week about a general trend to greater acceptance of guns by the public turns out to not really be true.

heston                It is true that more than 60% of Americans believe that a gun in the home makes us safer, but even though this number obviously includes a lot of non-gun owners, the poll results haven’t translated in new folks rushing out to buy guns.  Furthermore, the percentage of Americans who want stricter gun laws continues to run substantially ahead of those who believe that current gun laws need not be changed, and while groups like the 2nd Amendment Foundation and other rabid, pro-gun groups keep calling for less strict laws, the percentage of Gallup respondents who agree with this viewpoint has never risen above 15%.

Right after Sandy Hook, NRA totem Wayne LaPierre gave a speech in which, according to him, gun violence was caused by a breakdown of the mental health system, lenient sentences for criminals who got caught using guns, extensive media violence and, most of all, not enough guns in “good-guy” hands.  Two months before Sandy Hook Gallup asked the same question in a poll, and while respondents supported LaPierre’s views on defects in mental health reporting, they also cited as the second most important reason something the NRA always chooses to ignore, namely, “easy access” to guns.

The fact that Americans consider gun availability to be the second most important reason for mass gun violence shouldn’t come as a big surprise because the Gallup polls have consistently shown that more Americans want stricter gun laws than those who don’t, and this number spiked at nearly 60% right after Sandy Hook. The relationship between media coverage of shootings and public concern about guns is not easy to figure out, and I certainly don’t have the expertise to explore this issue in depth.  But I do note that every time Gallup asked about guns in the several months after Sandy Hook, general sentiment seemed to move every time towards more gun control and less guns.

Back in the 1980’s Americans resisted the idea that government should ban cigarettes even though we agreed that smoking was a risk to public health.  And even Rush Limbaugh begins to lose his audience when he launches a tirade about government restrictions on second-hand smoke.  If the Gallup polls demonstrate anything, it’s that we have reached a similar state in the argument over guns.  A clear majority of Americans feel there is no reason for them to own a gun, but they don’t want to prevent others from owning them, as long as ownership is controlled.

The rubber really meets the road when we get down to the definition of “control” and, in that respect, I have a little advice for both sides.  I think the gun-control folks should leave concerns about gun safety to people who own guns, and I think the gunnies should stop trying to convince everyone that an armed citizenry will make us more safe.  If we are going to be the only advanced country that allows its citizens free access to small arms, then gun owners should take responsibility for safety and not defer to phony safety programs like Project ChildSafe peddled by the NSSF.  At the same time, gun-control organizations shouldn’t back down from the idea that gun ownership is a serious risk, and you don’t lessen that risk by walking around with a gun.



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When Is A Homicide Always A Homicide? Try Using A Gun.

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One area in which behavior that results in serious medical conditions has remained largely outside the purview of public health regulation and research concerns injuries caused by accidents with guns.  Most gun injuries that result in deaths aren’t accidents.  They were caused by people who consciously decided to use a gun on themselves or someone else.  Together. suicides and homicides account for 98% of annual gun deaths; accidental or unintentional deaths account for only 2% of the total.  At least this is what the numbers look like that are published by the CDC.  In 2010, the last year for which we have complete numbers, gun suicides were 19,392, gun homicides were 11,078 and unintentional gun deaths were 606; the last number, as Ralph Cramden used to say on The Honeymooners, a mere “bag of shells.”

But now we have a very different argument being made by Michael Luo and Mike McIntire of the New York Times, who believe that the way in which coroners and other public health officials treat and report fatal gun injuries seriously undercounts the number of accidental gun deaths that occur each year.  In their article, published last September, the reporters dug into specific, coroner-level gun death reports in four different states and discovered that as many as half of the gun mortalities that were reported as homicides were, in fact, unintentional or accidental, a finding which if true for the entire country, would make a substantial difference in the ratio of homicides to accidents and might undercut a major argument on gun safety promoted by the gun industry and the NRA.

Why is there such a discrepancy in how gun deaths occur as opposed to how they are reported?  Because in many states and localities, any shooting of one person by another, regardless of age, is considered a homicide.  Or sometimes the same office will rule one accidental shooting as a homicide and the next one as an accident.  Luo and McIntire give examples of both, including a “homicide” in Texas where a 9-month-old was killed when his two-year-old brother opened a dresser drawer next to the crib, pulled out a gun and banged away.  Now I can’t imagine that even in Texas they could figure out how to execute a two-year-old for murder, but I also suspect that the parents weren’t charged with neglect, or abuse, or anything else.  Texas, along with a majority of other states, has no law requiring that guns be locked or locked away in the home, remember?

childsafeOf course if you listen to the NRA touting it’s Eddie Eagle program or the NSSF promoting its ChildSafe safety kits, you would think that the entire decline in unintentional gun injuries was due to them.  And in fact there has been a decline in accidental gun deaths over the last decade, from 726 in 2000 to 606 in 2010 (although the rate of gun injuries over the same period has gone up.)  But the question that emerges from Luo and McIntire’s reportage is whether the morbidity data that the gun industry uses to  pat itself on the back for its safety initiatives really tells us whether gun owners are being safe, or whether coroners and other medical workers are just playing fast and loose with different definitions of how gun accidents really occur?

These issues might be resolved and we could finally understand the true degree to which Americans suffer from unwise use of guns if politicians like Rand Paul would stop pandering to the NRA faithful and withdraw their cynical opposition to guns and public health.  I don’t blame the NRA for trying to hold the line against physicians or anyone else who might seek to limit or regulate the market for guns.  After all, they represent the gun industry, and when was the last time that any industry came out in favor of government controls? But it’s nothing short of disgraceful when a politician who also happens to be a licensed physician could pretend that public health should play no role in how Americans use their guns.  Note:  I didn’t say that public health should make the rules.  But public health should be able to explain gun accidents when there are no rules at all.