Tennessee leads in accidental shooting deaths, CDC finds

Tennessee ranks number one in the unfortunate category of accidental shooting deaths, which spiked more than 450 percent in the Volunteer State in 2014, according to federal data.

The most recent findings from the Centers for Disease Control show Tennessee’s accidental firearm fatalities jump from ninth in the nation in 2013 to the number one spot a year later. The data shows some 105 people died in accidental shootings compared with 19 the year before.

The Safe Tennessee Project, a grassroots gun violence prevention organization, said in a press release Wednesday most accidental shooting deaths stem from dropping loaded guns, failing to clear the chamber when cleaning, and children accessing unsecured, loaded weapons.

Beth Joslin Ross, policy director for the group, said she didn’t believe the CDC numbers, at first. “We don’t like to use the term accidental shooting because that implies that it was inevitable, that there was no way to prevent it when in fact these types of shootings are 100 percent preventable,” she told the Associated Press Thursday.

The group ties the state’s rising accidental death rate to its firearm laws. The National Rifle Association said the Tennessee state Legislature passed eight “pro-gun” bills in the 2016 session alone, including a controversial measure allowing full-time college and university staff with concealed weapons permits to carry firearms on campus, with the exception of sporting events and performance evaluation meetings.

Guns.com reported last month only 10 percent of the state’s 27,000 eligible staff have enrolled in campus carry programs since the law took effect July 1.

“The dramatic jump in unintentional shootings deaths in our state is a cause for alarm and a call to action,” said Jonathan Metzl, research director for the Safe Tennessee Project. “Legislation could make such effective strategies as gun-safety locks, smart guns, or gun safes as common as seat belts are in cars.  This data truly should be a wake-up call for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.”

Gun shop owners across the state, however, say accidental shootings result from the individual — not any legal flaw.

“Most accidental shootings are not caused because the guns have, or do not have locks,” said John Martin, owner of Shooter’s Depot and Range in Chattanooga, during an interview with Channel 12 News Wednesday. “It’s because proper protocol is not exhibited. The gun is pointed in a direction. When it goes off, it hits somebody.”

Martin said requiring gun owners pass a safety course could help. “Personally, I think it … it doesn’t infringe on your 2nd amendment rights … for you to at least be exposed to a safety class, but you’re not,” he said.

Kristi Manning, owner of Carter’s Shooting Supply in nearby Harrison, Tennessee, told Channel 9 News Wednesday the numbers “shocked her” because Tennessee is “probably one of the best states as far as permits and having the best permit class that’s out there.”

She said she always reminds customers of the “three basics” when handling firearms.

“Always point in a safe direction, keep your finger off the trigger til you’re ready to shoot and unload until ready to shoot,” she said. “People just think they can pick up a gun and shoot it without any type of training, any type of practice, not knowing what the safeties are.”

John Harris, executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, called the Safe Tennessee Project’s claim that gun laws spurred an ‘”alleged massive increase” in accidental shootings “interesting” Thursday, especially considering the state’s gun laws “have been relatively static, for the most part, since 1997,” he says.

“The changes in the gun laws since 1997 have had to do with where individuals who have handgun permits, presently around 600,000 in a state of about 7 million, can and cannot carry,” he said. ” A jump in ‘unintentional shootings’ therefore is more likely to be a change in how that class is defined as opposed to some perceived change in Tennessee law during that period.”

Article updated at 7:19 p.m. EST to include statements from the Tennessee Firearms Association.