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The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) recently released a study report concluding that hunting’s safer than many other popular participation sports. Media Matters was all over it like a cheap suit. The left-leaning matter minders maintained that the NSSF’s methodology was “almost laughably shoddy.” Media Matters’ blog post pinged my radar, mainly because they called us out by name for picking up the story immediately. I’m the guy in charge of tearing apart the often fundamentally flawed firearms studies propagated by The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the Violence Policy Center and others. As TTAG’s resident stats geek, I was inspired to take a closer look at the hunting safety numbers, blogged here as Hunting Is Safer Than Sex. So I contacted the NSSF to get the methodology and data sources from the horse’s mouth . . .

Media Matters’ main argument: the report “mashes” together two incomplete data sources to form the dataset for hunting accidents and that the bad data negates the research. The NSSF did indeed use two different sources to figure out their numbers — they combined information from the Consumer Products Safety Commission and the International Hunter Education Association to get an idea of how many injuries were reported from hunting accidents.

The CPSC was only concerned about injuries from treestands and skeet shooting, but not any other hunting related accidents. The IHEA data was used to fill in the gaps based on a “worst case scenario” approach, taking the maximum number of hunter injuries reported per year by state for the period between 2000 and 2010 or (in cases where data was unavailable) using the average of the total injuries per state.

For example, if there were two hunting accidents per year in a state except for a single year where there were 30, the NSSF would use 30 as the value for that state. If none were reported they’d average the rest of the reporting states and use that number. CPSC and IHEA data was combined (despite probable overlap in the results which led to over reporting) to give a more accurate idea of the total number of hunting accidents per year.

While these two data sources represent the best information available (as the FBI and ATF do not track which firearms incidents are specifically relating to hunting accidents) it still is, in fact, incomplete. The CPSC doesn’t have much information about hunting accidents (two categories for all hunting accidents compared with six categories for accidents involving fireplaces, for example) and the information available to the IHEA is submitted on a voluntary basis by each state’s wildlife management agency (some states don’t report anything).

The use of voluntarily reported data in a report like this does indeed have the ability to under-report hunting accidents—which could lead to a lower level of injury for hunting compared to other sports. (CPSC’s data is culled from hospital records and doesn’t rely on voluntary reporting.)

Also unclear from the press release: how the NSSF treated fatalities in the comparison.

Media Matters points out that the IHEA claims 1,000 people per year are accidentally shot while hunting; a figure that puts the injury rate at about 6.25 for every 100,000 hunters. For comparison, Wikipedia claims (or did when I last checked) that about 1.4 out of every 10,000 people in the United States die in a car accident every year.

Still, despite the low numbers it’s hard to see how the NSSF integrated those fatalities into their report. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure someone has died from playing chess at least once, but is that death worth five injuries? Or do you exclude the deaths completely? It wasn’t made clear in the press release.

So I asked, and this was the response from Jim Curcuruto, the head honcho for NSSF’s research team (Director of Research & Analysis if you want to be all formal):

The press release focused on total injuries per activity and did not delve into how many injuries resulted in a fatality as I was unable to find a reliable source for fatality data per activity.

In other words, in a report that appears to examine the relative safety of various sports, the NSSF completely glossed over the whole “death” thing.

The NSSF’s press release on the report used the headline “Hunting: One of the safest activities in America.” In my opinion the word “safety” means free from injury OR death, as both outcomes are generally bad for your health. Despite the use of the word “safety” in their press release the NSSF doesn’t look at fatalities at all when they performed their calculations, a decision consciously made due to the lack of data available about sports fatalities. According to Jim the word “safety” is still applicable despite the lack of fatality data, but I don’t agree and think it’s a deceptive use of the word.

Excluding fatal accidents from the dataset automatically skews the result and makes that report relatively meaningless. In my opinion the probability of death from a hunting related accident should be much higher than the probability of death from an injury sustained while golfing or tennis or playing any of the “typical” sports, as not only are the implements of the sport deadly by design but emergency medical help is pretty far away when you’re in the middle of the woods. This would mean that the consequences of an accident were greater, but if the probability of such an accident occurring were small then the result may still be valid. Unfortunately such data was not included in the analysis.

We now know that you’re less likely to wind up in an emergency room while hunting than many other sports, but unplanned refrigerated trips to the morgue are still a mystery. And that right there is the million dollar question the NSSF failed to answer in terms of the “safety” of different sports.

The truth is that the NSSF’s report is incomplete, and the press release based on that report was more deception and propaganda than statistics and facts. The report is headed in the right direction in terms of general methodology, but until we see some concrete numbers regarding deaths related to hunting accidents we can’t draw any conclusions about the relative risks of sporting activities in the way that the NSSF’s press release does.

[EDIT:] Following the publication of this article I was contacted by Mr. Curcuruto from the NSSF who provided additional information and some minor error correction. According to them the press release was based off an “analysis” piece and was NOT a formal “study” as originally reported. I have updated the language of the post to change “study” to “report,” the term used in the NSSF’s original press release, in an effort to be as accurate as possible in our analysis.

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  1. Good analysis. Its nice to see someone take the time to pick apart an article that makes a bold claim.

    I happen to think that hunting is pretty safe in general, but like anything there is some risk involved.

  2. I like a quote Paul Greenberg had in his column today:

    “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
    –John Adams

    One of the “issues” I have with the NRA and many other advocacy groups is their propensity to go for the visceral emotions at the expense of the facts.

    I’ve been around the block often enough to realize that facts alone don’t motivate folks to get involved – their emotions are what get them moving. But if the facts don’t support your cause, maybe your cause is wrong.

    I wish NSSF had been a bit more diligent and clear about what their research did and did not reveal about safety. I’m reassured that TTAG is making the attempt to ensure the facts support the assertions. Good on ya’, guys.

  3. I’ve watched a lot of hunters doing their thing in the woods, and I’ve drawn the conclusion that hunting is very safe, even for the deer.

  4. A wholesome pursuit, which hunting is in my opinion, should never be oversold in any manner. This release by NSSF is an unfortunate example of just that.

    Hunting is not perfect; nothing is. But taken on the whole, it’s very easy to defend (if, in fact it needs defending) to the general public.

    Overselling it actually compromises that defense.

  5. After speaking with Mr. Leghorn and reviewing the many edits he made to his original blog post, I stand behind the sources NSSF used to compile the data for its release on hunting as a safe activity. NSSF strives to produce quality, accurate data and to make sure to report each source utilized as accurately as possible. It is disappointing to have this data labeled as deceptive by Mr. Leghorn as we believe it utilizes best-available sources. If a reliable data source does not exist, as is the case with fatality data pertaining to the activities in our release, NSSF research will not “venture to guess” or post “opinions” on what those figures may be. We rely on the best data available and will continue to do our best to supply the industry and hunters and shooters with timely, accurate data.

  6. That irritates me. The NSSF could probably compare mortality rates from hunting accidents and football injuries and still come out ahead, but now they’ve damaged their credibility. Way to screw the pooch guys.

  7. While I’m not sure how many people, per capita, hunt in Oregon, if somebody gets shot hunting, it’s news, and it only happens about every third or fourth year. I’d venture that far more hunters get lost and die of exposure, or keel over from natural causes, because the hunting population is getting older. The dangers of hunting are numerous, and don’t really have that much to do with guns. I won’t fabricate any statistics to back me up.

  8. Kudos for looking more carefully into this bold report. Reports such as this, that shift skillfully and deceptively between raw occurrences and percentages and leaving out crucial information required to interpret such statistics can sound compelling to those who do not know how to look beyond the numbers.

    Another highly misleading aspect of the report is the failure to take into consideration the number of hours of risk exposure entailed in the various activities under comparison. Take for example car travel vs. hunting. The number of hours spent driving per year is 584 hours for the average adult. The number of days spent hunting per hunter is 17.6. Even if a hunter is in the field 10 hours per hunting day, the average driver’s exposure to driving hazards will be three times greater than the average hunter’s exposure to hunting hazards. The same approach can be taken to better understand the well-worn drowning deaths in swimming pools comparison.

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