NRA members looking at pistols during the 2017 annual convention in Atlanta, Georgia.
Photo: Scott Olson (Getty Images)

Gun advocates often argue that guns are only dangerous to the public when wielded by amateurs, criminals, and the mentally ill. But a study this week in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that people are a little bit safer from guns when tens of thousands of experienced gun owners pack up for the annual National Rifle Association convention.

Harvard Medical School researchers, led by Anupam B. Jena, a professor of health care policy, used a national database of emergency room visits by patients with private insurance to track reported firearm injuries from 2007 to 2015. They then looked at the rate of injuries that occurred during the same dates of the annual conference held by the National Rifle Association, and compared them to those recorded in the three weeks before and after the convention. They found that injuries were consistently less common during convention days.

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Gun injuries on non-convention days occurred at a rate of 1.5 per 100,000 people, compared with 1.25 per 100,000 people on convention dates, about a 20 percent reduction. In the states where the convention was being held, the reduction was high as 50 percent. This is a small, if statistically significant, effect, given that around 85,000 people were non-fatally injured by guns in 2015, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So, contrary to what some media outlets have suggested, it’s unlikely the nation’s emergency rooms are noticing any substantial decrease in gunshot victims during convention weekends.

“My best guess, and this isn’t in the paper itself, probably several hundred more injuries would have occurred if those 80,000 individuals did not attend the convention that year,” he said.

The reasons why NRA conventions might lead to fewer injuries, Jena speculated, are that people might go hobnob with fellow gun fans while packing heat, sure, but they’re not actually using their guns. Similarly, owners of gun ranges and hunting grounds might close up shop for the weekend, taking away opportunities for gun-users to accidentally hurt themselves or others.

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“I’m not surprised by the findings,” Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, told Gizmodo via email. “It is consistent with a variety of studies that show where there are more guns, more people get shot in unintentional shootings, suicides, domestic homicides, and criminal assaults with guns after controlling for other factors.

“Those with the greatest exposure to firearms take a break from handling loaded firearms in their homes and in other contexts, and fewer people are shot,” said Webster, who was not involved in this research.

The fact that injury rates were even lower in states where the convention was held also supports the opportunity explanation, Jena said, since local gun owners would be more likely to attend the convention. Similarly, injury rates were lower in states where the percent of people who legally own guns is highest. The rate of gun-related crimes notably didn’t change, suggesting that conventions are only reducing the risk of gun accidents.

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“Even if you’re experienced and trained with guns, you might still have injuries,” Jena says, comparing it to the constant risk of driving a car and getting in an accident. “And even though that seems like an obvious point, I think there’s probably a belief or a narrative that injuries related to guns only happen in the hands of inexperienced users—that if only people with adequate training or more experience had firearms, injuries would not occur.”

But timely as Jena’s findings might seem, given our political moment, it’s really only the latest example of his efforts to explore how large-scale events can seemingly have hidden public health consequences. Last year, for instance, Jena’s team published research showing marathons can make it harder for heart attack victims to quickly seek medical care, presumingly due to traffic jams.

“This paper happens to be published at a time when there’s lots of debate over firearms, in particular automatic weapons—I don’t think this paper necessarily adds to that debate in a significant way, and it certainly wasn’t intended to be highly political in nature,” Jena says, noting that he doesn’t really have a strong opinion on gun control one way or the other.

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“We sort of stumbled upon this research because it’s consistent with the types of things I find interesting, and the types of patterns I’ve seen elsewhere—in the sense that there’s these large events that can tell us something about questions we’re interested in, whether it be about how delays in care can affect mortality, or how inherently safe or unsafe guns are,” he added.

[New England Journal of Medicine]