Safety From Crime Or Accidental Murder?
Much Confusion Needs To Be Resolved

Montgomery Journal, MCSM Safety Part 2 3/26/99

By Bob Culver

Some weeks ago a Journal Viewpoint article appeared under this same by-line, titled "Mandating Gun Safety in this Age Could be a Colossal Misfire". The working title, and point in question was, Can We Mandate Safety? It presented a discussion of the perception of safety and the pursuit of remedies for the hazards of life. One Letter to the Editor, Aiming to confuse, was offered in reply. The reply stated, It (hysteria) comes from the fact that gun owners - not just criminals - kill thousands of nongun owners during domestic quarrels and accidental shootings every year. The reply complained that this "fact" was not, but should have been, addressed in the Viewpoint article.

In the close of the viewpoint article some questions were raised, generally of crime rates but specifically of defining accidental injury as opposed to willful criminal action. The questions were left to be answered in future articles. As promised, that time has arrived.

First, one point needs to be made. The use of wild hyperbole does nothing to enhance the understanding of a situation, and is the root cause of confusion. The massive droning of misleading quotes, selective statistics, omitted facts or outright falsifications may generate catchy sound bites, but repetition of a lie will not make it the truth. Eventually the weight of truth will prevail, but much damage and suffering may occur in the meantime.

The question at hand is the failure to distinguish between accidental injury and willful crime. This is nicely illustrated in the reply lumping together "domestic quarrels and accidental shootings". One event probably a criminal act, the other an unintended action. The false claim in the reply, of "thousands of nongun owners (killed)...each year", may be the result of such confusion. It is refuted by the report, "National Safety Council - 1995 Accident Facts, Accidental Deaths Due to Unintentional Injuries, October 1996". The term "unintentional" is described in the report as including injury and poisoning, but NOT homicides, suicides, acts of war and undetermined causes. Firearms are cited as the cause of 1,400 accidental deaths or a rate of 0.5 per 100,000 for 1995. This is certainly not "thousands" or even the 2,200 also cited in the reply. The 1995 firearm accident trend compared to the previous year was down 7%. The trend for other causes of accidental deaths were up 2% and the individual rates were much higher. Compared to the firearm accident rate of 0.5, the other rates were; motor vehicles = 16.7, falls = 4.8, poisoning by solid and liquid = 3.8, drowning = 1.7, fires =1.6, suffocation = 1.1 and all other = 5.1. Only poisoning by gas or vapor is lower than the firearm rate at 0.2. Another report, "National Safety Council - Fatal Firearm Accident Rate 1903 to 1995", shows a trend in fatal firearm accidents consistently falling from a high rate of approximately 2.5 per 100,000 in the early 1920's to its present low of 0.5, a decline by a factor of 5. The rate trend now approaches an unachievable rate of zero.

Finally we can address the question, is there a firearms accident problem? Are citizens "safe" from accidents with the present population of firearms and their owners? Can any significant improvement be made toward accidental firearm injury reduction? To answer these questions, the history of firearm safety and the probable cause of the present downward accident trend and its dramatically low rate must be understood.

As discussed in the first viewpoint article, present day firearms are uniquely reliable. They function properly and tend to not fail in a hazardous condition (they fail safe). A few operational safety restrictions have even been resolved over the years, like early single action revolvers which may have discharged a loaded cylinder under the hammer by a blow to the hammer without the trigger being pulled. The historical method to prevent this accidental discharge was to always leave an empty chamber under the hammer. Today this dilemma of safety versus utility is answered by a trigger activated transfer bar that will not allow the hammer to strike a cartridge without the trigger being depressed. Clearly mechanical reliability, hence mechanical safety, will be improved with time. But, rather than mechanical improvements alone, the clear reason for declining firearm accidents is safety training of responsible firearm owners.

All firearm safety organizations and owners support training for safe ownership and use. The mechanical limitation cited above was overcome by a particular practice - don't load the chamber under the hammer. But almost any one of the several basic firearm safety rules, such as; never point a loaded firearm at a person, do not put you finger on the trigger till ready to fire, etc., will also prevent an injury by unintentional discharge. Personal responsibility, learned from training, will always be ready to protect against injury. Training is not a lock that will be broken or lost. It is not a law that will be unknown among hundreds. Training must always be ready, even to replace forgotten locks or unknown laws. But training can never be dismissed, because without it there will be nothing to fall back on when the lock fails.

An object lesson on the risk and benefit of a safety device was given in the first viewpoint article by reference to automobile airbags. But a more direct lesson of the consequences of mandating safety is the little known lesson of the aspirin bottle. As reported by Prof. John R. Lott, Jr. in the Chicago Tribune on August 6, 1998, "President Clinton has argued many times that we protect aspirin bottles in this country better than we protect guns from accidents by children." However, Harvard economist W. Kip Viscusi has shown that child-resistant bottle caps have resulted in "3,500 additional poisonings of children under age 5 annually from (aspirin- related drugs)...(as) consumers have been lulled into a less safety- conscious mode of behavior by the existence of safety caps."

If actual safety from accidental firearm injury is not a problem, why is there a perceived firearm safety problem? Perhaps the mindless repetition that there are "safety" problems without knowing the true context of the claim is to blame. Perhaps accidents are being combined with non- accidental injury to unknowingly accentuate, or to purposefully distort, the problem. An excellent illustration of this is available in the recently published story in the Montgomery Journal March 16, 1999, page A3. There, it was reported in the headline that, "Firearms take over as leading cause of injury-related deaths in MD." The first sentence continues, "Firearms surpassed motor vehicles as the leading cause of injury-related death...". Clearly this story must be a discussion of accidental injury and death, since automobile deaths are generally accidents and not willful acts. But a few sentences later the truth emerges with the claim, "Experts say it's because of Maryland's relatively high HOMICIDE rate..."[emphasis added]. Yet a few sentences later it is back to accidental injury in describing "firearm-injury prevention". Then the confusion is increased further by, "...spokesman for the Handgun EPIDEMIC Lowering Plan Network in Chicago. [But] guns have no regulation, no public HEALTH infrastructure to track what's going on."[emphasis added]. Now health has been added to the mix with accident and crime. Is it the inference that firearms represent a disease and firearm owners represent the carriers of the disease?

On and on, Back and forth the story and discussion continues, confusing accidental injury and homicide, crime and health. Accidents do not include homicide, legitimate studies like those referenced earlier specifically state this. It is the misleading inclusion of criminal activity, as if they were accidental events or a disease process, that is giving firearms and their owners a bad name. Finally, late in the story, the pat answer to this safety non-problem is offered by, "...Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse maintains that firearms related deaths could be reduced with better product regulations and technology that allows a gun to be fired only by its owner. Legislatively, there needs to be more responsibility put on manufacturers to make guns safer."

But the real answer is hinted in the ninth paragraph into the news story. It is alluded to but not developed when the question is posed, "Similarly, they (researchers) said, they do not know why the gun-death rate inches up in Maryland, which has some of the strictest gun control laws in the nation, while the national rate declines." If it is safe to assume that the discussion is still a confused mixture of accident and criminal activity, the latter of which heavily outweighs accidents, then Prof. John R Lott, Jr. has the answer. Unlike Maryland, 31 other states have recently passed "shall-issue" concealed carry laws allowing law abiding responsible citizens to carry firearms for protection. At the very end of the story the directly effective crime reduction action of, "...crack down on crime instead of going after gun owners or the gun industry." is offered but not fully explained. Law abiding citizens can be part of the solution, they are not part of the problem.

Encumbering the utility of firearms will diminish safety. The aspirin bottle cap breeds unsafe acts. Auto airbags have direct unintended consequences of injury and death. Likewise, relying on strictly mechanical locks or restrictive laws, rather than training, may have unintended consequence. Those locks and restrictive laws will suppress the appreciation of safety training in reckless people and will prohibit the ready access and utility of firearms for defense. This will result in more injury and death to the law abiding owners, both from accidents and also being unable to defend themselves. Various studies report that at the very least hundreds of thousands, and perhaps many millions, of defensive uses of firearms occur each year. Regardless of the actual count, civilian firearms clearly have beneficial life saving and crime prevention uses. They can deter crime at a particular time or location and also protect other law abiding citizens not actually carrying firearms. The criminal does not know who, in an armed society, he can count on being a defenseless victim. The criminal actually is benefitting from laws that disarm the law abiding citizen.

In summary, it is important to learn the unintended consequences that can come about through misguided attempts to mandate safety. Individuals should apply safety education and then be able to choose any available safety measure that fits the need, be it a trigger lock or airbags. They should not be denied personal defense and should be free to choose to keep and use firearms. While the perception of the lack of safety from accidents can be attributed to misunderstood or misleading information, the presence of continuing criminal activity is all too real. Montgomery Citizens for a Safer Maryland (MCSM) is now analyzing crime rates in Maryland and will soon address this topic. Is there a high crime rate and resulting criminal attack "safety" problem? Regardless of the change in crime; increasing, decreasing, or remaining constant, individuals can not be denied the ability to defend against it. In Maryland, are citizens being denied the ability to protect themselves, their family, community, country and Constitution? But that, as they say, is another story.

Robert D. Culver is co-chairman of Montgomery Citizens for a Safer Maryland (MCSM), a grass-roots information organization that focuses on safety and self-defense issues.

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