Hey Bert, Is This Thing Loaded?

Since the Newtown shootings, liberal commentators have been paying greater attention to all kinds of firearm-related issues, including accidental shootings. Josh Marshall in particular often tweets the accidental shooting of the day—"Georgia Man Accidentally Shot Cousin to Death When Gun Fell From Lap" was today's, following on "Ohio Boy Fatally Shoots Brother With Handgun He Thought Was a BB Gun." Which got me wondering, how many of these incidents are there?

What interests me for the moment aren't homicides, but accidental shootings. How do they compare to other causes of accidental death and injury? We all know that vivid individual cases, no matter how vivid, don't necessarily give an accurate impression what's happening overall. So let's delve into the statistics, shall we?

The first thing to understand is that accidental shootings make up a relatively small proportion of all the different ways Americans find to stumble, metaphorically speaking (though sometimes not) to their deaths. You're probably able to guess that the most common cause of accidental death is car accidents, which account for more than a quarter of the total. But you might not have guessed that number two is poisoning, or that number 3 is falls. The data in this chart come from the Centers for Disease Control for 2010, the latest available (not sure why, but the injury data are more up-to-date than the death data). A total of 120,859 Americans died in accidents that year.

There were 606 accidental deaths by shooting in 2010, or 1.66 per day. There were another 252 firearm deaths that were "undetermined," which I guess means that the police never figured out whether it was an accident or intentional. You can look at this number in two ways. On one hand, there are over 300 million of us, so only one in 500,000 Americans is killed every year because his knumbskull cousin said "Hey Bert, is this thing loaded?" before pulling the trigger. You can see that as a small number. The other way to look at is that each and every day, an American or two loses his or her life this way. In countries with sane gun laws, that 606 number is somewhere closer to zero.

The ones that get the most attention are obviously children, because those stories are so tragic. So are kids any more or less likely to die in accidental shootings? The answer is, not really. The national rate is .2 per 100,000 residents, and it doesn't vary much by age until you get to the elderly. Kids under 14 are less likely to be killed accidentally by guns, and people between the ages of 15 and 34 are the most likely:

That's just fatal accidental shootings. What about nonfatal shootings? There are more of those—a lot more:

Why are there so many more nonfatal accidental shootings? The most reasonable explanation is that when you're trying to shoot someone, you aim. But if you just drop your gun out of your lap and it goes off, chances are it'll put a bullet through the wall. There's a smaller but still real chance the bullet will hit someone, in the foot or the arm or the butt. And a smaller chance still it'll get them in the head or heart.

You should also know that the overall nonfatal gunshot rate is much, much higher—there were over 81,000 nonfatal gunshot injuries in 2012. That means that there were over 63,000 intentional nonfatal gunshot injuries, meaning that for every person murdered with a gun, between five and six got shot on purpose, but lived. Make of that what you will.

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