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Shawn Vestal: Statistics are poor ammo in Idaho debate about guns

Sat., March 22, 2014

Idaho’s legislators and governor should – but most probably will not – pay attention to a new batch of statistics about gun safety in Washington.

As accidental gun injuries rise, the most common age of those who unintentionally hurt or kill themselves or others is 22.

You know. Upperclassmen.

Idaho’s legislators and governor will certainly not give this a thought, having already ignored all the good reasons to keep guns off crowded, chaotic and youth-filled campuses, and having already ignored every college president and the state’s police chiefs, and having already ignored every other sensible, post-Enlightenment thought about guns in favor of a stubborn Dirty Harry fantasy. They are in the grip of a passion, a faith, and the dictates of this passion involve overlooking or denying certain facts.

But here they are anyway, pearls into the pen: Gun accidents are more common than defensive gun uses; criminal uses of guns are more common than gun accidents; and suicide is more common than all of them.

This is what we know about guns generally, everywhere. Here’s just one example from the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery: Researchers in 1998 examined gun injuries in Seattle, Memphis and Galveston, Texas, and concluded, “For every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.”

FBI reports for 2010 tallied a ratio of 36 criminal homicides for every single justifiable homicide. That does not measure all defensive gun use, of course, but that ratio is a whopper. Gun suicides were even further off the charts: 84-to-1. Accidental fatal shootings were around three times more common than defensive ones.

The latest analysis of Washington’s deadly gun mishaps comes from a report in the Seattle Times by Brian M. Rosenthal that showed 2012 was a banner year in Washington for two things: gun sales and accidental gun injuries.

Gun sellers conducted half a million background checks for gun sales in 2012, triple the number 10 years earlier. Hospitals admitted 122 people with unintentional firearms injuries, according to state Department of Health statistics. That’s the highest total since 1995, and a third higher than the average over that period, the Times reported.

There are limitations to what you can say about this data, of course, including whether the surge in gun purchases is connected to the increase in injuries. Others will surely note that the number is relatively low compared to other sources of injury. But the truth is, that hospital figure is low; hundreds of people were treated in emergency rooms for gun injuries but not admitted, and more were wounded in accidents that were classified in other ways, the Times found.

For example, when the 3-year-old son of a Marysville police officer got his hands on his father’s gun in the family van and shot his 7-year-old sister to death, it was classified as an assault. And when one former Marine accidentally shot and paralyzed a former fellow Marine while he was cleaning his pistol in Kennewick, it was also classified as an assault.

But hey – these were accidents, and accidents happen, right? People also crash their cars, right? What could we possibly do about this, short of storming into the homes of decent, law-abiding citizens and seizing their guns?

Ruth Kagi had one idea. Kagi, a Democratic state senator from Seattle, proposed a bill in the two most recent legislative sessions that would require gun dealers to offer – merely to offer – trigger locks when selling guns. A trigger lock would be useful when, say, the young child of a police officer or a college student picked up a pistol.

The National Rifle Association said this proposal was “demonizing guns.” The NRA said this was an “anti-gun” proposal.

Two years running, the bill failed to get a floor vote.

“I don’t know why it was controversial, but I guess it was,” Kagi told the Times. “Anytime you mention the word ‘gun,’ it’s really hard to do much of anything.”

Unless, that is, you’re adding them to Idaho campuses.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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