In the immediate aftermath of the horrifying massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a quick point of contention quickly emerged among observers: Exactly how many school shootings has the United States seen in 2018? According to Michael Bloomberg's Everytown for Gun Safety, a non-profit that advocates for gun control, there have been 18 school shootings in 2018; that figure has been widely cited by advocates and politicians alike. But, as the Washington Post points out, Everytown's count cites every instance a gun is discharged in a school; in terms of mass casualty incidents where an assailant arrived at a school ready to do harm, the number was closer to five.
Nestled in this micro-controversy of methodology is a very real problem: A whopping 13 of the shootings that took place in American schools in 2018 by the time of the Parkland massacre were accidental. And there have been other accidental incidents since then: On March 7th, a student was accidentally killed and two more injured at a Birmingham, Alabama, high school after a young man reportedly flaunted his gun to a group of girls; two days later, a student accidentally shot himself at a school in Lexington, Kentucky. Intentional shootings are one issue; the mishandling of guns is another.
So why do we often overlook this issue? One possible explanation: Second Amendment devotees may embrace the right to wield their firearms, but they do not embrace the life-ending, world-shattering power that gun ownership truly entails. Great power, in this case, does not come with great responsibility.
Recently published data on American gun owners bear this out. In February, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that more than half (54 percent) of U.S. gun owners reported "not storing all their guns safely," i.e. in a safe and/or with a trigger lock. This conclusion, published in the American Journal of Public Health, is especially shocking given that 24 percent of respondents had children under the age of 18 living at home; while gun owners who have children are 44 percent more likely to lock up their weapons than child-free gun owners, only 55 percent of that first group actually reported doing so.
"Household gun ownership can increase the risk of homicides, suicides, and unintentional shootings in the home, but practicing safe storage for all guns reduces these risks," lead study author Cassandra Crifasi said in a statement. "The survey findings indicate a real public-health emergency. More than half of gun owners in the U.S. are not storing all of their guns safely—in a locked gun safe, cabinet or case, locked into a gun rack, or secured with a trigger lock."
This is a correctable problem. A July of 2017 study by researchers at the University of Washington School of Public Health found that some 61 percent of gun owners "had received formal firearm training"—up from 58 percent in 1994, but a sign that the number of Americans who can competently handle a firearm "has not meaningfully changed since two decades ago." To be clear, there are many types of non-formal firearms training. And sure, accidental firearm discharges are well below the national homicide rate (505 deaths amid 11,000 murders, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data), but this figure is a cold comfort when public-health officials are as much in the dark on gun accidents methodologically as they are on, say, police shootings.
Here's the irony: The American gun industry is all for safety measures. Consider the National Shooting Sports Foundation's emphasis on safety in a recent email to Guns.com in response to the Johns Hopkins study. "The majority of firearms owners store their guns responsibly," wrote NSSF spokesman Bill Brassard. "Some gun owners say they don't use locked storage because they want quick access to a firearm for home protection. Others say locked storage isn't necessary for them because there isn't a child in their home. Neither is a reason to skip safe storage."
The "quick access" argument gets to the heart of what makes the issue of responsible gun ownership so difficult to tackle in the first place: The American experience emphasizes individual sovereignty in ways that, when mixed with firearms, translate to a gun-owning populace that puts its sense of freedom over the broader public safety—and that, in the end, is no freedom at all.