Gun Ownership, Gun Culture and “Accident” Prevention

Christmas card with Santa Claus, and father and son toting assault rifles.

Is there a “gun culture? And is it related to gun ownership and to accidental shootings?

Given the many disturbing facts, statistics, and daily poignant case examples, I remain continuously perplexed that Americans continue on this self destructive path. We (or law makers and those who vote for them), allow certain groups that idolize guns to demonize those who attempt to reduce the slaughter. Their answer to the slaughter is “more guns.” Even though a majority of Americans support greater gun control and responsibility, they continue to elect “anti-gun control” legislators. Where have we in the U.S. gone wrong? Even “Wild West” Australians allow greater gun restrictions.

In this diary I review a couple of recent epidemiological research papers concerning firearm ownership and safety that recently came to my attention. I hope they can open some discussion concerning future directions to address gun accidents and gun violence. While the results of these studies are not likely to astound this audience, they do provide some basic epidemiological data from which action programs might grow. Both studies are recently published in Injury Prevention, a journal of the British Medical Journal group.

Who owns guns and what do they do with them?

The first paper reports a study led by Dr. Bindu Kalesan and her colleagues of the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University. This paper published in the June 2015 issue of Injury Prevention, reported results of a survey of a national representative sample of the adult U.S. population (n = 4,000) concerning firearms ownership and its relationship to a construct that the authors call “social gun culture.”

Although most of us have some concept of what a gun culture might be like (largely stereotypes of such as the NRA and rifle ranges), epidemiologist had not previously attempted to define and/or measure such a culture. For the purposes of this study they defined exposure to a “social gun culture” if respondents answered affirmatively any one of four questions concerning whether family or friends would think less of them for not owning a gun, and whether their social life (with family or friends) involved guns.

(Consider the Santa Photo above. What might happen if the little boy did not want to hold the assault rifle? Would he be thought less of?)

Twenty nine percent (29.1) of individuals surveyed in the U.S. reported owning at least one gun. Consistent with what most of us believe, the percentage of gun ownership varied widely by state and region ranging from only 5.2 % ownership in Delaware to 61.7% in Alaska. Regionally the lowest ownership was found in the Northeast, whereas the highest ownership region was the South, although Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho reported greater than 50 % gun ownership.

Other significant demographic correlates of gun ownership included being older than 55, white, and male. Further “Gun ownership was 31% more likely among those living in states with the least stringent gun policies and 51% more likely among those living in states with high gun death rates. “

A strong and significant association was found between gun ownership and being exposed to gun social groups. Overall, 13.7% of the entire sample responded affirmatively to at least one of the gun culture questions, (e.g. “My family [social group] would think less of me if I did not own a gun” or “My social [family] activities involve guns.”) Of the gun owners, 32.3% were associated with some aspect of “gun culture,” whereas 6.1% of non-owners were so exposed. (I assume these non-gun owners were family members of owners who participated in the culture.)

Surprising to me was the finding that while nearly 30% of Americans owned a gun, only 5.5 %. reported using them for hunting. My guess is that the real number of gun owners who actually hunt is less than those who report doing so. My experience is that while lots of people talk about hunting, fewer actually get into the woods. Those who actually use guns for subsistence are apparently very few.

This is gun “culture?”

Two men with rifles inside a Chipotle restaurant

Anecdotally, my search for photos to accompany this diary was informative in that a large percentage of the online photos were of young women wielding firearms. Apparently the gun purveyors are targeting women so that guns are no longer only a guys’ pastime.

<strong>What does the term “accident” mean to the public?</strong>
The second research article I read, also from <a href=”http://The second research article I read, also from Injury Prevention (2015), was entitled: “How members of the public interpret the word accident.” This research, conducted by Dr. Deborah Girasek of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences was reprinted from an earlier edition of this journal as being of particular salience yet today.”> Injury Prevention (2015)</a>, was entitled: “How members of the public interpret the word accident.”

This research, conducted by Dr. Deborah Girasek of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences was reprinted from an earlier edition of this journal as being of particular salience yet today.

This research addressed the public’s concept of “accidents” taken broadly but fully applies to firearm accidents as well as to auto accidents, fires, and the like. Some context is important here to understand why this might be an issue. During the 1990s several safety organizations proposed prohibition of the use of the term “accident.” For example, The United States’ National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wrote in 1997 that the term accident:

“… promotes the concept that these events are outside of human influence and control.”

Since safety organizations wanted the public to think of accidents as preventable, they sought to avoid words that suggested that accidents were just random occurrences and/or due to fate. However, despite their well intended proclamations, these groups had never checked with the general the public to see what the term accident really connoted to them.

Dr. Girasek sought to find out just what the term accident meant to the average person by randomly surveying 943 US adults. Her Results were quite contrary to the beliefs of these major safety organizations. She found that 83% of adults believed that the term “accident” implied that the incident in question was preventable. Moreover, this belief held equally across all demographic groups and was independent of whether the respondents had been in accidents themselves. Furthermore, 25% of the sample explicitly considered accidents to be not just preventable but also predictable.
Finally, Also contrary to the safety organizations’ beliefs, only 26% of this sample felt that the term “accident” implied that the incident had been controlled by fate. So, by a substantial majority, Americans believed that accidents were preventable and to some extent, predictable. Shying away from the word “accident” was unnecessary.

A case in point:

Young girl and firearms instructor seconds before tragic shooting accident

Was the death by Uzi of the Arizona firearms instructor at the hands of a novice 9 year old pictured above:

An accident?



Just fate?

Did this have anything to do with the family gun culture?

Check out this website for gun culture:

A strong implication of these findings is that since a large majority of the public believes accidents could be prevented, it should follow that a wisely targeted nation-wide public educational campaign directed at preventing firearm accidents should fall on sympathetic or at least open ears.

Although the social gun culture may not be large in numbers as shown here by Dr. Kaleson, the gun culture’s influence (as exemplified by the NRA) is huge in deterring preventive efforts by congress such as forbidding federal research money to be used to study gun violence and safety at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

And we see States like Florida that passed a law forbidding physicians from asking patients about gun ownership and their presence in the home, unless it pertains directly to patient care. Since 89% of accidental firearm injuries to children occur in the home, it would seem that having a gun in the home would have health consequences worthy of physicians concerns. They allow physicians to address patients’ eating behavior and diet, smoking, and cycling without a helmet. Why not guns? Physicians tend to agree that gun control is public Health issue and we have an ongoing epidemic of gun violence in our country.

If we could just reduce the child (and adult) ”accidental” gun injuries, it would make a huge contribution to the country’s Public health in terms of both morbidity and mortality.

With the continuing startling incidence of gun violence (you supply the latest example), this issue clearly rises to the level of a serious public health problem, given that greater than 11,000 homicides, 21,000 suicides, and 500 accidental deaths occur each year.

Such a problem begs for an epidemiological approach that is broad, inclusive, and of the scope of the successful lung cancer prevention campaigns mounted against smoking. The CDC is the best equipped to mount such a campaign as they did with smoking. Congress must allow them to do their job.

Dr. Michael Siegel of the Department of Community Health Sciences at Boston University School of Public recently stated:

Decades of public health messaging, TV and media campaigns have successfully changed the social norms surrounding tobacco, another public health hazard, and smoking has been on the decline…

“It’s pretty widely acknowledged that people shouldn’t smoke in public,”

“Someone may say with guns, there’s no way you can change social norms about that, but we would have said that about smoking 30 or 40 years ago.”

Owning a firearm has health effects, increasing the probability of your own injury, and education campaigns could highlight this…

“It’s not clear that it will protect you, There’s a lot of evidence that it results in accidents, and is more likely to be used in a way that injures the owner or someone in the household.”

What would an anti-gun campaign look like? In combating smoking, the overwhelming research liking smoking to cancer and emphysema, became public in spite of the lies and hidden reports of the tobacco lobbies. A tactic used successfully by epidemiology programs to combat smoking-caused cancer was the use of strategically placed poignant posters.

The NRA and second Amendment groups are little different from the tobacco industry of yore. They are small but loaded with money and zeal and see every attempt by the public to deal with the problem as an intrusion on their 2nd Amendment rights. They see gun confiscators everywhere.

For example, the city of Seattle recently proposed to levy a tax on the purchase of fire arms and ammunition with the proceeds to go to firearm safety and prevention efforts. Of course the “2nd Amendment people are in a frenzy about it. I recently listened to the local head of the 2nd amendment group on our local NPR radio community round table show. He immediately jumped into the meme that “prevention and research are part and parcel of gun control.” And to his mind gun control was unconstitutional so of course he was adamantly against even talking about gun safety or injury prevention.

There are millions of Americans supportive of taking greater control measures, even a majority, but they appear to remain impotent against the NRA with their campaign financing of congressmen. And recall that only 29% own a gun whereas 71% do not own a gun. Who should be in charge here?

David Atkins at the Washington Monthly hits the nail on the head when he states that:

“… we need to stop focusing on the motives of the killers, and start focusing on the gun.”

Similarly, we must stop blaming the carnage on the mentally ill as they account for but a small portion of the overall gun violence.

It seems to me the steps are clear: We need to change the cultural fascination with guns and we know how to do that. It would take a large effort at educating the public (who should be receptive, given the data), about the harm. The CDC can lead this effort as they have with anti-smoking campaigns and other major health initiatives. For them to be able to take the lead, Congress must fund them for the effort. The current congress will not do that. They must be voted out by the majorities who believe in gun control as the means of combating gun violence. And they need to know that gun accidents are not really “accidents.”

Gun “accidents” are preventable. As Smoky the Bear said 70 years ago: “ONLY YOU CAN PREVENT FOREST FIRES.” And Gun Violence.


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  1. Good Sunday moose people. Here is a bit I did on gun accidents and what can be done about them. I wrote this before the Oregon blastings but as you’ve probably heard, the community is still very positive about guns. Actually, it is them that this post is describing as part of the gun culture that needs to be changed.

  2. David Atkins, at the Wa. Monthly, has more to say……

    You Don’t Need That Gun For Self-Defense

    There is no reason to believe that guns serve much if any social benefit beyond a few news stories now and again that are massively promoted by the gun lobby to further entrench the myth of effective self-defense.


    But sadly, the same false arguments will continue to be used by gun proponents, in the same way that false arguments about climate change, taxes and abortion are consistently used no matter how often they’re debunked. The American right has gone so far off the rails that reality is no longer a relevant boundary on discussion. As with supply-side economics, the benefits of gun culture are taken not on evidence but on almost cultic faith by the right wing and its adherents.

    • Thanks Portlaw. It is sobering alright but we should be able to counter this nasty trend since we are the majority. It is the same thing as goes on in all the country’s politics. The minority is winning because not enough of the majority vote. We need to do more than hold rallys and beat our drums.

  3. Jerry Large, at the Seattle Times…….

    Americans should look in mirror to stop gun violence

    There are more people advocating that we treat gun violence as a health issue because of the damage it does.

    Change may be slow, but it is going to come. Maybe we’ll start by making gun ownership at least as hard as getting a driver’s license. Maybe we’ll adopt stricter measures and even get to the point where guns are hard enough to get that it won’t be commonplace for someone to walk into a public place and start shooting.

    But first, the people we elect have to get sick of being complicit in gun violence. That will only happen if we stop forgetting and start making gun sense a prerequisite for our votes.

    The president was right when he said gun violence is a political choice we make. We can make a different choice that won’t leave us feeling ill.

  4. I am trying to figure out how to speak properly about guns, guns culture, and gun control. I have acquaintances who are adamant that extreme gun rights be preserved and others who reject that notion.

    The problem with the gun rights discussion is that no one is happy with anyone drawing the line between what is acceptable and what is extreme. And too many on both sides, including Bernie Sanders, sadly, want to use it to pit urban versus rural. It isn’t and it simply makes it easy for people to claim that Urban Elites don’t understand Real Americans, the ones who live outside the cities.

    Here is what I do know: gun rights are being used right now to distract Americans from the problems in our society. The Republicans have successfully scared enough people into thinking that Democrats will come to get their guns that voters are reflexively choosing Republican politicians simply because of their pro-NRA stand and ignoring the rest of their policy positions. So we don’t get anything done on health care and family supporting jobs and college loan debt and criminal justice and homelessness and hunger. We get single-issue voters who are ignoring that the other issues are making their futures bleak.

    Single issue voting is always worrisome and when it leads to elected officials who are given a de facto “mandate” to wreak havoc on our governmental institutions by virtue of the blind eye given to the rest of their agenda, it can do immeasurable harm.

    • Thanks for your thoughts and help Janf.

      I tend to go with the data which now says that less than a third own a gun, only 5.5 % use them for hunting, and only 13.7% participate in a gun culture. If these numbers are anywhere near correct, gun advocates are in a significant minority. The majority, in my opinion need to get mobilized to educate the single issue voters and get everyone out to vote for what they believe in. At the present, this is a case of minority rules – or perhaps, NRA money and fear rules.

    • Bill Clinton, campaigning in 1996, said (paraphrasing here) – They told you if I was elected I was going to take away your guns. You still have your guns. They lied. Don’t believe them any more. You know how that election turned out.

      • It’s different now. The scared white rural vote is lost to Democrats, just like the South was lost after LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act.

        No one in the Obama coalition is going to win states like West Virginia or Arkansas, states that Bill Clinton won in 1992 and 1996. But that’s fine … we will find other ways to win, ones that don’t sacrifice our principles or our children’s future.

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