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Accidental shooting deaths have plummeted in US

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The rate of accidental shootings in the United States has fallen 48 percent since 1999. (Dreamstime/TNS)

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.

There were 489 people killed in unintentional shootings in the U.S. in 2015, the most recent year for which data are 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 percent.

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 percent 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 Association, which opposes most gun control measures, is not eager to acknowledge that regulations may be working. The group declined to comment for this report.

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

Of the 489 people killed in accidental shootings in 2015, more than 85 percent were male, and nearly 27 percent of those were ages 15 to 24. The rate for that group — 5 deaths per 100,000 people — was more than triple the national average. Men between 25 and 34 were the next-most vulnerable group.

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, said the decline in unintentional shooting deaths has lasted at least three decades. In 1981, for example, the U.S. total was 1,871, nearly four times the total in recent years.

Vernick said 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.

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.

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.”

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