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Amid rising gun violence, accidental shooting deaths have plummeted. Why?

Amid rising gun violence, accidental shooting deaths have plummeted. Why?
An array of guns at Markley's gun range in Watsonville, Calif. (Los Angeles Times file photo)

A country music festival in Las Vegas: 58 dead. A Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas: 26 dead. The streets of Baltimore last year: nearly 300 dead.

Gun violence has received no shortage of attention. But one bright spot has gotten much less: the number of accidental shooting deaths has steadily declined.

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There were 489 people killed in unintentional shootings in the U.S. in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. That was down from 824 deaths in 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Taking into account population growth over that time, the rate fell 48%.

Experts attribute the decline to a mix of gun safety education programs, state laws regulating gun storage in homes and a drop in the number of households that have guns. While the improvement occurred in every state, those with the most guns and the fewest laws continue to have the most accidental shooting deaths.

The gains were overshadowed by an overall rise in gun deaths driven by the top two causes: suicides and homicides. Accidents made up just 1.3% of the 36,247 U.S. shooting deaths in 2015.

Still, neither side of the gun debate talks much about the progress that has been made.

The National Rifle Assn., which opposes most gun control measures, is not eager to acknowledge that gun regulations may be working. The group declined to comment for this article.

A spokeswoman for Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates for gun control, called the decline "encouraging" but suggested that the CDC data may not capture all accidental gun fatalities because it depends on how local medical examiners classify deaths.

The group continues to push for more gun safety measures, highlighting tragedies such as the accidental killing of 14-year-old JaJuan McDowell in 2016.

He was visiting family in Savannah, Ga., for spring break when a 13-year-old cousin picked up a gun he said was unloaded. The cousin wanted to show JaJuan it would not fire, but a bullet was in the chamber. It went off, killing JaJuan instantly.

The coroner ruled JaJuan's death a homicide, and the cousin served a few months in juvenile detention for involuntary manslaughter. Still, his mother, Julvonnia McDowell, says she views her son's death as an accident.

"He did not intentionally pull the trigger," she said. "This was an unintentional shooting.… It was preventable."

McDowell, who lives in Atlanta, now works with Everytown for Gun Safety on educational campaigns there aimed at preventing such shootings.

"Your kids can go to anyone's house ... and it can happen to anyone," she said. "That's why it's so important to talk about gun safety and securing guns."

Of the 489 people killed in accidental shootings in 2015, more than 85% were male, and nearly 27% of those were between 15 and 24. The rate for that group — five deaths per 100,000 people — was more than triple the national average. Men between 25 and 34 were the next-most vulnerable group.

The rates for males under 15 was far lower, perhaps due to so-called child access prevention laws, which allow for criminal or civil charges to be filed against a gun owner if a child gains access to a firearm that is not securely stored.

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Congress has resisted making such legislation. But a total of 27 states now have such laws, with 14 states making improper gun storage a criminal offense.

In Hawaii and Massachusetts, a person could face criminal charges even if the firearm is unloaded. Massachusetts, which has the lowest rate of unintentional deaths nationwide, is the only state to require that all firearms be stored with a locking device.

In California, a law signed by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in 2013 made it a third-degree misdemeanor to knowingly store a loaded firearm in a place where an unsupervised child could have access to it.

But experts say such laws are probably only part of the story behind the statistics.

Jon S. Vernick, co-director at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, says the decline in unintentional shooting deaths has been underway for at least three decades. In 1981, for example, the U.S. total was 1,871, nearly four times the total in recent years.

Vernick says that a decline in the share of homes with guns probably plays a major role in the decrease. While Americans continue to purchase guns at all-time highs, they are concentrated in fewer households.

In a report published in 2015, researchers at the University of Chicago found that 31% of households reported having a firearm in 2014, down from about 48% in 1977 to 1980.

 
  (Los Angeles Times)

Hunting accidents may also be down, he said, as the share of Americans who hunt appears to have declined. States that have high rates of gun ownership and strong traditions of hunting have the highest rates of accidental deaths.

Between 2006 and 2015, Louisiana had a sizable number of accidental gun deaths — 321 — and the highest average annual rate by a significant margin — 0.71 deaths per 100,000 people. Rounding out the top 10 states were Mississippi, Alabama, West Virginia, Arkansas, Wyoming, Montana, Kentucky, Alaska and Tennessee. Of those, Mississippi, Kentucky and Tennessee have gun storage laws.

The accidental gun death rate in Louisiana was more than 25 times that in Massachusetts.

 
  (Los Angeles Times)

Yet even many of the states with the most deaths have seen steep declines. In Alabama, for example, the number of deaths per 100,000 people fell from 1.15 in 1999 to 0.41 in 2015.

Some experts caution that the national drop could also reflect, at least in part, changes in how medical examiners classify deaths — determinations that the CDC relies on for its data.

"Intent is not always obvious in the case of self-inflicted gunshot wounds … whether the shooting was accidental or suicide," said Robert Anderson, who leads the statistics branch at the CDC. "Medical examiners and coroners often will use accidental manner of death as default in the absence of compelling evidence of suicide. More thorough investigations are, I think, likely to turn up such evidence and result in fewer accidental deaths."

Researchers say uncertainty over what is driving the decline also stems from a lack of federal funding to study the issue.

In 1996, the Republican-controlled Congress passed the so-called Dickey Amendment, which stipulated that money appropriated to the CDC could not "be used to advocate or promote gun control." The provision remains in place.

"If we had seen this kind of decline in some other public health area — like an infectious disease — I guarantee that by now we would have nailed down the reason for the decline," Vernick said. "The lack of robust federal funding for gun violence prevention research — by comparison, for example, with infectious diseases — means that we don't know for sure."

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Twitter: @kurtisalee

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