When I teach people about firearms safety, I always take the time to stress the importance of Rule #4. The first three are immediately applicable to keeping your own blood on the inside, but rule #4 is mainly about the safety of others and often overlooked. “Always be aware of your target’s foreground and background.” Implied in that rule is to always make sure that your bullet will impact something after it passes through the target — bullets don’t just stop after hitting a puny scrap of paper. Unfortunately those who had a less structured introduction to firearms safety (like gang members) don’t worry about where the bullet will eventually land. This leads to “stray bullets,” something that bothered Dr. Garen Wintermute (pictured) enough to write up a letter and submit it to the Journal of the American Medical Association, or JAMA.

The Missourian gives us the background:

Stray bullets have appeared across the nation in the past month. They have hit people sitting on front stoops in Philadelphia and Brooklyn, N.Y., a student in Tuscaloosa, Ala., a nurse in Palmetto, Fla., a man in San Francisco, a teenage girl in Springfield, Mass., toddlers on Staten Island, N.Y., and in the Washington suburbs, a child in Oakland, Calif., and a 10-year-old boy playing outside in Durham, N.C.

Despite such carnage from “errant gunfire,” public health officials know little about it. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks accidental shootings. But it doesn’t count stray bullets.

Garen Wintemute wanted to know more. He is a professor of emergency medicine at the University of California-Davis. Wintemute and his colleagues first had to decide what made a bullet a stray one. They came up with a bullet that “escaped the sociogeographic space or perimeter customarily set by the circumstances surrounding the firing of the gun …”

What the article doesn’t mention is that Dr. Wintermute works for the Violence Prevention Research Program, is not an artificial intelligence, and appeared in the documentary “Gun Fight.” If that documentary sounds familiar it might be because RF ripped it apart in a post not too long ago. For further evidence of bias go no further than the “Other Web Sites of Interest” section of the Violence Prevention Research Program’s website and note the mix of pro 2A versus anti 2A websites.

The newspaper article on the letter was predictably short on logos and heavy on pathos, and JAMA’s website wanted me to pay $30 for the one time privilege of reading this article, but Dr. Wintermute has helpfully pirated his article and placed it online free of charge in its entirety. Turns out the entire thing is no longer than one full page of text.

The first thing Dr. Wintermute did was define a “stray bullet.”

We defined a stray bullet as having escaped the sociogeographic space or perimeter customarily set by the circumstances surrounding the firing of the gun from which it came, and cases as shooting events that involved at least 1 straybullet injury to a person: a gunshot wound or injury by secondary mechanism.

In English, that’s a bullet that has left the immediate vicinity of the shooting activity, ANY shooting activity, that injures a human being. Dr. Wintermute even spells that out nicely in a table for us and indicates what percentage of the observed cases fell into that category. He included stray bullets:

  • Incidental to violence (59%)
  • Hunting or other sports (7.4%)
  • Celebratory (firing into the air) (4.6%)
  • Maintenance (ND) (2.8%)
  • Other / Unknown (26.1%)

From this data a logical conclusion is that 88% of stray bullets come from sources other than recreational shooting. But we’re forgetting something — how exactly did good Dr. Wintermute obtain this data?

Between March 1, 2008, and February 28, 2009, we conducted real-time surveillance using Google and Yahoo! news alert services, searching on stray bullet, and the news archives of GunPolicy.org. One year later, we searched for follow-up reports. We did not retrieve articles when payment or a subscription was required (5%) or, in secondary searches, articles that had not been archived (~2%).

That’s right, they trawled the internet for news stories about bullets falling from the sky.

They didn’t go and look at police reports, CDC data, or other credible sources — instead they chose to rely on journalists to present the truth. Unfortunately journalists these days seem less worried about reporting the news and more worried about getting people to read their articles, sometimes stretching the truth a bit to meet the “if it bleeds it leads” mantra. Especially when the source for their information is GunPolicy.org.

The letter then continues, pointing out some statistics gleaned from their research, and presents a conclusion.

Most stray bullet shootings arise from violence, but they frequently affect females, children, and older adults. Those who are shot have little or no warning; opportunities for prevention once shooting starts are limited.

Translation: There’s no way we can stop these women, children and senior citizen seeking bullets unless we keep people from firing guns in the first place, and these scary bullets can come out of nowhere with no warning.

When you’ve finished reading the letter, one thought enters your mind. “So what?” What was the point of the research? The letter doesn’t add anything to the collective knowledge that a simple understanding of physics and statistics wouldn’t have imparted — what goes up must come down, and it might hit someone. There are no recommendations, no suggestions for further research, no key findings, nothing. It seems like the only purpose this letter has is to remind people that “stray bullets” can happen at any time, scare them a little, and lead them to believe that the only way to stop them is to take away the guns.

And that’s why this is a “letter” and not a full research paper. This is JAMA’s equivalent of a “Letter to the Editor,” an opinion piece with just enough science buzzwords to make it seem credible. But, like with any opinion piece, it has issues.

When I was younger I read a book called “Swallowing Stones.” The main character fired a gun in the air which killed someone, and the book was all about how horrible he felt and his inevitable arrest. Even though it’s been a while since I read it, the story stuck with me and (I think) makes me more cautious when using firearms. This letter is no different from that book — a series of anecdotes about insanely improbable events that the author hopes will keep people away from guns. It’s propaganda, pure and simple.

That’s a wall of text to read through, so let me sum it up real quick (I should probably do this for every analysis piece):

TL;DR Summary

Synopsis: Bullets fired in the air can hit people.
Data Sources: Yahoo! searches for “stray bullet.”
Data Analysis: Nonexistant.
Author Bias: Salary paid by anti-2A group.
Impact on 2A Debate: None.

By the way, if the paper’s figures are accurate you have a 0.000103% chance of being hit by a stray bullet.

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16 Responses to JAMA: Stray Bullet Shootings in the United States

  1. I notice that they didn’t differentiate between a thug who can’t aim and a cop who can’t aim. It seems like that would be a worthwhile statistic to have.

  2. Nick, you stated, “Unfortunately those who had a less structured introduction to firearms safety (like gang members) don’t worry about where the bullet will eventually land.” True enough. However, many of those who have had very structured and comprehensive firearms training seem to neglect Rule 4 as well. Here I’m thinking hunters with “buck fever”, people who have are unfamiliar with the phrase “alcohol and gunpowder don’t mix’, and many folks in law enforcement. Sadly and far too often, Rule 4 seems like the bastard child of firearms safety.

    Dr. Wintemute, much like Dr. Carl Bogus and Dr. Saul Cornell, are not serious and objective scholars. They are bought and paid for, even if they are true believers. The old saying “he who pays the piper calls the tune” very nicely sums up the kind of “research” that they produce.

  3. All right show of hands, who else facepalmed when they read the sentence below?

    “That’s right, they trolled the internet for news stories about bullets falling from the sky.”

  4. Possibly because the NRA dropped Rule 4 is the reason most folks do not know about it. It is only in the “when storing a gun” section that they mention down range effects.

    They dropped Rule 1 too. The NRA’s rule 3 is a range rule, not a carry rule.

    The NRA’s rules were written by lawyers. The Colonel’s rules were written by a shooter.

  5. I have a pathological fear of striking an unintended target while shooting. I got it back at age seven. A news story had made the late night news about a woman who was driving on New Years the night previous and a bullet fell through the roof of her car, striking her skull and killing her. Since then, combining that fear with the thought of a bad shoot with a BG using a human shield I practice a lot.

    Even with those personal hangups I gave this article a jaded eye. The article seems to say nothing but “there are folks unnumbered and unnamed who are irresponsible and causing unintended mayhem…” And the sentence builds to nothing. I could even understand if they suggested GPS tracking for every ingot of lead and copper currently in existence. Yes, it is as realistic as a Flintstones style automobile to go green with but it would at least make the article build to something instead of just state “facts” and leave you to either disregard it or guilt trip yourself for ever firing a weapon. Neither outcome leaves you more informed. Seems like a failure as a literary work.

  6. Here in Tuscaloosa there was a big to-do when the grad student was hit in the head with a stray round and died. The apartment complex’s residents flipped out (understandably) and started calling for increased security. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the guy who died was more likely to get struck by lightning twice.

    For a while, everyone was saying that a gang member shot the student through the perimeter gate of the complex, or even followed him inside. A week later the TPD ruled it was a stray from a gang on gang gunfight a few blocks away.

    The sad fact of life we have to accept is security gates and cameras don’t stop stray bullets.

  7. Unfortunately, I assume every one complaining of a stray bullet hitting them is likely lying about how the bullet got there.

    Sort of like the gentleman I saw in the office last week with a “stray” round in the hip area three years ago, and now he wants the bullet out. He was just standing around minding his own business at a party in the desert when a round came out of no where and hit him. Whatever, I don’t see the point of cross examining folks.

    I should have taken a photo of the Xray and asked you guys about it because the bullet looked a lot like a big button or small spool.

  8. Based on his past “research” on firearms, you can be wure of two things concerning any “research” conducted by Wintemute:

    1) The data is not obtained in any scientific manner, and cannot be replicated by any actual scientific process.

    2) His conclusions will support the banning of firearms by civilians.

    In other words, he is a lying SOS.

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