The number of fatal firearm accidents, or unintentional firearm fatalities, have been falling for more than 50 years.  At the same time, the number of firearms in the United States has been steadily rising.  The cause of fatal firearm accidents is not correlated to the number of firearms in society . . .

The red line is the number of private firearms in the United States, in units of 100,000. At the end of 2013, the estimate was 363.3 million. The green line is the number of fatal firearm accidents, or unintentional firearm fatalities, in the United States. The number in 2013 was the lowest recorded, 505. The absolute numbers are important, but the rate of unintended firearm fatalities per 100,000 population is a better measure of safety.

Chart courtesy of Since this chart was produced, we have a few more years of data. Here is a blow up of the last 15 years, including the tail end of the above chart.

 A large number of factors have been proposed for the falling fatal firearm accident rates. Here are a few of the more prominent ones:
  • Training in basic firearms safety.  The NRA has been pushing firearms safety training for decades.
  • Safer firearms.  Modern firearms, which make up a majority of the private firearms in the United States (half the stock has been manufactured since 1984, three quarters since 1965), have more safety features.  It is almost impossible for pistols manufactured after 1973 to fire when dropped, due to liability concerns.  Safety triggers have become common on rifles in the last decade.
  • Blaze orange hunting gear.  A significant drop in hunting fatalities occurred after many states required hunters to wear blaze orange during crowded hunting seasons, such as deer hunting in Wisconsin.
  • Requirements for hunter safety training to obtain a hunting license.  Most states now require a hunter safety course for new hunters.
  • Better emergency medical response.  People who might have died from a gunshot wound are saved by better emergency medical care.
  • Rise of concealed carry permits.  Most concealed carry permits require some safety training.
  • Rise of private tactical training academies, which teach gun fighting as a martial art, such as Gunsite in Arizona, Rogers Shooting School, InSights Training Center, Front Sight Firearms Training Institute, and a host of other private, for profit, firearm training schools.
  • The rise of the gun culture magazines from the 1960’s on, such as Guns and Ammo, Shooting Times, Garden and Gun, Special Weapons, Handguns, Guns, and numerous others.  While the print versions are being supplanted by online versions and blogs, all preach gun safety, and have had significant impact on the gun culture for the last 50 years.
  • Substitution of pistols for home defense from shotguns and rifles.  A wound from a pistol is less likely to be fatal than from a high powered rifle or a shotgun at close range.
  • Heightened awareness of gun safety due to the push for more legal restrictions on guns by the media and elite politicians.  As the population has been inundated with “guns are bad” and “guns are dangerous” messages, one consequence may be a heightened concern for following the safety rules.

All of these factors probably contributed, but the total drop is astonishing, a 95% reduction in the rate of fatal firearm accidents since 1904. This occurred as the per capital number of firearms has increased from .35 in 1945, to 1.14 in 2013, a tripling of the number of guns per person in the United States. The per capita numbers are not available before 1945.

Here are the data sources:

Number of Private firearms in the United States from a previous article at Gun Watch.  The 2013 number was calculated using the same methodology and ATF sources.

1965-1987 unintentional firearm fatalities and per capita rates available from Kleck, Point Blank Page 306 Table 7.1

1981-2000 unintentional firearm fatalities from An Analysis of Firearm-Related Accidents in the United States(pdf;  rates from Kleck or calculated using Census figures.

1999-2013 unintentional firearm fatalities and per capita rates available in WISQARS.

1904-2008 U.S. Accidental Firearm Death Rate chart courtesy of

©2015 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice is included.

Link to Gun Watch

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31 Responses to Fatal Firearm Accidents vs Private Gun Ownership 1965 – 2013

  1. There seems to be a big drop around WWII. Maybe a lot of returning soldiers receiving firearm safe handling training as well?

    • I think that the advances in emergency medicine can account for most of the total decline, and the post war drops. There are always significant improvements in trauma medicine and gunshot wound care/treatment after wars. So much experience in that area comes back into medical field with returning Veterans.

  2. That’s great it really is… but what do we use to thin out the stupid now? A lawn darts comeback? Removing airbags from all vehicles for a few years? Issuing those recalled Taurus’ as standard duty arms?

    These number kind of make it look as if guns on their own are not metal auto head-butt, eye gouge, death machines certain folks make them out to be. Almost as if with proper training and/or common sense they can be handled safely.

    • Firearms still play a part in facilitating those who seek Darwin awards. That’s why there’s a non-zero minimum value that is essentially a floor, below which the incident rate likely will never drop.

      • There is an endless supply of stupid people, too, so our herd will always cull out the dullest among us…I never heard of a gun that loaded itself, aimed itself or fired itself. There was ALWAYS human intervention.

    • I remember an interview with Brian O’Neill, president of The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety who said that the safest car he would design would have no seat belts, and he’d replace the airbag with a steel spike.

      He was joking of course, but the fact remains that over the last 20 years, with all the advancements in automobile safety technology; airbags, ABS, traction control, etc, along with the older tech; crumple zones, re-enforced doors, they haven’t been able lower the fatality rate by more than a few thousand.

      If you try to make something idiot proof, they will just come up with a better idiot.

      • Problem is they can’t change physics. If you decelerate from 60 mph to zero in the space of 10 feet, you are probably going to die no matter how large the airbag/crumple zone in front of you is.

        • I get what you’re saying but your numbers are off a bit. 60-0 mph in 10 feet is under 20 g’s which is pretty survivable.

          David Purley decelerated from 108-0 mph in 26 inches and survived. Of course that was a race car 🙂

    • A gun is nothing more or less than a tool.Like any too l if mishandled will kill you We have as many murders by golf clubs and baseball bats but I see no movement to ban these. Cars cause many deaths every year but no real outrage here, and the final point is the malpractices caused deaths by doctors that outnumber them all. To our disgrace they murder many thousands by Abortion but this is disregarded as a fetus and not alive. Are guns the real danger ? Have you bothered to look at the FBI records that state over a million lives were saved by citizens who had a gun to protect them and family. Your point of the medical care while valid doesn’t alter the record of accidental deaths by firearms. unless they have found a way to bring the dead back to life dead is dead and this is what the data shows not accidental shooting.

  3. Lack of accidental discharge(s) likely has a closer to fact corollary in the quality of firearms manufacture, and the inherent safety factors of military grade/military based firearms.

  4. Is that chart telling me that in 1965 there were 900,000 firearms in the country? Because I owned 2 in 1965, I call BS! BTW, the units are 1,000, not 100,000, or we’re pretty far off in the other direction.

    EDIT: OK, my bad, means there were 90 million firearms in 1965, 100,000 is correct, and I haven’t even started drinking yet. Read the damn chart!

  5. I believe that in years gone by, suicide by firearms were probably more likely to be written up as accidents for the sake of families. This would likely skew the initial numbers tremendously.
    Just something to think about.

    • Concur. I had the same thought while reading the article. Perhaps, though, there are still “accidents’ that result in death that could be suicides still. Something impossible to know, but should be mentioned that accidental death by firearms could include some undetermined number of possible suicides.

      A sky diving friend told me once of a highly experienced jumper with thousands of jumps who left an aircraft without a parachute. His death was ruled an accident, though everyone – including his wife or girlfriend who was on the jump with him – considered it a suicide.

    • I’m thinking the same, the initial rates struck me as strangely high. Also, look at that jump in the mid 40’s in the second chart.

    • @An English Person: Great charts. Looks like the average person is more likely to die in the United Kingdom even with stricter gun laws and Socialized Medicine. Even though we supposedly have higher rates of violent death. Wonder why that is ? Check out and compare these two charts: and
      Point is that even though we have, by far, the highest rate of gun ownership in the World our intentional homicide rate is nowhere near the highest. And the correlation between number of guns per capita and violent deaths per capita is tenuous at best. Check out Mexico, Venezuela and Russia for relevant examples. There are many others as well.

      • Only “developed” nations count in their world-view. How anyone can leave Russia or the Czech Republic out of the “developed” category I’ve yet to figure out.

        • As a Russian, and based on personal experience, I can assure you that Russia doesn’t belong anywhere near the “developed” category. It’s not quite third world, but it’s somewhere in between, especially once you get away from the capital.

      • Exactly Galtha; the compelling arguement is that the USA is doing all the most important things right and a lot better than most other places – unfortunately, a significant part of the rest of the ‘first’ world’s population are too self obsessed to realise.

  6. Safes. Gun safes, pure and simple.

    50 years ago, people stored guns in drawers, closets, leaned them in the corner or by the front door. Often, loaded. Sometimes they were displayed openly on wall racks or in glass cases. Maybe those glass cases were locked but the key was probably on top of the case “hidden” behind the cornice or molding.

    Gun safes are big business now and everybody has one. Even people without children in the home but almost certainly if children are present. Just walk into almost any gun shop and see how much floor space is devoted to safes. Even big chains like Dick’s and Walmart sell ’em. Even cheap ones do the job.

    All without any government mandates in all but a few jurisdictions. A self-regulating culture.

    • I would guess that some of the “accidents” in those spikes are returning veteran suicides that were ruled accidental as a kindness to the family.

  7. “The cause of fatal firearm accidents is not correlated to the number of firearms in society.”

    Yes it is. It’s inversely correlated.

    • Maybe due to gun owners being more aware of gun safety in general and using more secure storage over the years? Also we have millions of military veterans who were taught about gun safety. I’ve found that civilian shooters IN GENERAL, are more safety conscious (and better marksmen) than law enforcement officers IN GENERAL Anyone who wants to be a gun owner needs to become proficient with his/her chosen weapon. That means practice-practice-peactice. Not only basic marksmanship, but tactics,misfire drills, assembly/disassembly and safety. With the 2nd amendmentt right comes a responsibility to exercise the right safely and proficiently.

  8. You know, of course, this is just going to slide off the antis’ backs. They will push the “better trauma care” cause and ignore the rest.

    What would be really compelling is if the NON-fatal firearm injury stats displayed a similar inverse correlation.

  9. I wonder what the accidental gun deaths rate would be if hunting-related deaths were not counted. Hunting is an inherently dangerous sport – the activity presents a variety of dangers, firearms being only one of them. Accidental firearms deaths while hunting could, and possibly should, be ascribed to the activity (hunting) and not merely to the handling of firearms (accidental and negligent discharges that probably contribute the remainder of accidental firearms deaths, which are directly related strictly to the firearms themselves). Counting hunting-related firearms deaths is like counting deaths during sanctioned races in auto death statistics – it’s the racing that kills racers, just like its the hunting that kills hunters. Cars and firearms are just the instruments of their deaths in the respective activities.

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