When NRA members are busy, fewer people get shot.
That finding probably isn’t very surprising. After all, while gun enthusiasts are attending conventions, they’re not out firing their guns, which means fewer opportunities for accidental shootings. The researchers also note that shooting ranges may shut down during conventions, leaving fewer venues for shooting, as well.
But the findings could also undercut the common argument about who is responsible for unintentional gun injuries: namely, that it’s untrained or inexperienced firearms users doing most of the accidental shooting. People attending an NRA convention are more likely to be experienced, long-time gun owners and users, so the researchers reason that if keeping those people away from their guns for a few days dramatically decreases the number of firearm injuries, it implies that those injuries could actually be happening among well-trained gun aficionados.
“We used data from a large private insurance database, where we looked at about 75 million people who’d had a visit to either a doctor, emergency department, or a hospital on the dates of NRA conventions,” Anupam Jena, senior author of the study and a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, tells Tonic. Researchers used the data—which covered injuries between 2007 and 2015—to compare the rate of gun injuries on convention days to the rate on non-convention days in the three weeks before and after.
“What we found is that on the date of the conventions, the proportion of visits that involved a gun injury was about 20 percent lower than the identical days of the week in the surrounding weeks,” Jena says. On non-convention days, gun injuries happened at a rate of 1.5 per 100,000 people. When the NRA convention was in session, that rate dropped to 1.25 per 100,000 people. (When provided with a copy of the study, a spokesperson for the NRA declined to comment on the record.)
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When researchers dug deeper into the data, they found other correlations supporting the idea that gun conventions lower gun injuries versus the reduction being random. The decrease in gun injuries was highest among men, who make up the overwhelming majority of convention attendees—85 percent of attendees at the 2017 convention were male, according to NRA demographics.
Injury reductions were also pronounced in states with the highest levels of gun ownership, namely the South and West. And finally, in what Jena describes as the most intriguing finding, there were larger decreases in gun injuries when a convention was held in a given person’s state that year.
“The idea is that it’s easier for someone to attend a convention if it’s closer to them,” Jena says, which means you’re more likely to attend. And if you’re more likely to attend, you’re less likely to be using your gun during that time, and less likely to add to the gun-injury statistics.
“I’m not surprised by the findings,” Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, tells Tonic. “It is consistent with a variety of studies that show where there are more guns, more people get shot in unintentional shootings, suicides, domestic homicides, and criminal assaults with guns after controlling for other factors. Those with the greatest exposure to firearms take a break from handling loaded firearms in their homes and in other contexts and fewer people are shot.”
That said, Jena is careful to reiterate that there may be more complicated underlying factors. The data show us that among a large pool of privately insured people, the rate of gun injuries goes down during NRA conventions. It’s unlikely, but possible, that something as apparently unrelated as, say, bad weather could be coincidentally lowering the rate. Knowing that the injury rate drops, a more persuasive argument is that people who are at high risk of using guns don’t do so during the conventions, leading to fewer injuries.
But, Jena says, “If the presence of the convention has a causal effect on reducing gun injuries during the convention dates, it need not be that it’s solely due to the individuals attending the convention.” Maybe gun ranges also close while their owners attend the convention, or gun users who’d otherwise get together to shoot go to the convention instead. “We have no way of knowing how the strength of these various mechanisms,” Jena says. Right now there’s a correlation and a hypothesis of what’s going on.
He also acknowledged that it may seem unbelievable that a convention could decrease gun injuries so profoundly. In recent years, attendance at the NRA’s annual meeting has hovered around 80,000. That’s a small number compared to the 75 million privately insured people used in the study. Is it plausible that those convention attendees have an outsized effect, one large enough to create a drop in overall injuries?
Jena thinks it is. The key, he said, is intensity of use. Recent research, in fact, shows that gun owners are a minority, about 55 million Americans, though this number is hard to pin down. NRA members are a smaller subset of that—the organization claims to have 5 million members, but no one really knows. (You may be sensing a pattern here.) And studies show that while gun ownership has continued to decrease over recent decades, the people who do own guns own more of them than a single person would have in the past.
It stands to reason, then, that NRA convention goers are the hardest of the hardcore, most likely to have guns and to shoot them most often. The organization’s demographics support this, claiming that 81 percent of attendees spend $500 a year on hunting/shooting equipment and more than 60 percent of attendees travel more than 200 miles for the annual meeting.
So, Jena says, it’s likely that rate of firearm injuries among NRA members is actually much higher than in the general population—or those 75 million people covered in the insurance data used in the study. “It should be higher and the reason why is, because the minority of privately insured in our study population attend the convention, yet the observed reduction in injury should in theory only be coming from NRA convention goers,” he says. If only 80,000 people out of 75 million attended the convention, yet the overall firearm-injury rate dropped 20 percent, the rate of injuries among those 80,000 must be much higher.
“Ultimately, the main question in my mind is how to interpret the findings,” Jena says. More data would help with that: data on injuries among NRA members, for example, or data about gun injuries among differently insured populations—Medicaid recipients, say. (Unfortunately, Congress has stymied funding for much gun violence research in the past 20 years.) The study, he says, is a natural experiment, using available data to show that NRA conventions correspond to lower rates of firearms injuries. Now it’s time to figure out why.
In 2014, there were more than 65,000 intentional firearm injuries in the United States and nearly 16,000 unintentional firearm injuries. Close to 2,000 of the total injuries involved children under 18 years of age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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