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D.C. group says Alaska leads in gunshot deaths

Posted: October 27, 2011 - 11:05pm

The state of Alaska leads the nation in per capita gun deaths, a new analysis by the Violence Policy Center shows.

The study released Monday indicates Alaska has a household gun ownership rate of about 60 percent and a gun death rate of about 20.64 per 100,000 people, nearly double the national rate.

The study analyzed 2008 national data that was released earlier this month from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

The Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. that advocates reducing firearms violence, presented findings on the numbers behind gun deaths since 2003, its website states.

The group claims the total number of Americans killed by gunfire rose to 31,593 in 2008 from 31,224 in 2007.

The five states with the highest per capita gun death rates in 2008 were Alaska, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Wyoming, the study found. Each had a per capita gun death rate in 2008 that exceeded the national average of 10.38 per 100,000 people, a press release stated. Mississippi’s rate was second-highest at 19.32 deaths per 100,000 people.

The gun death rate statistics “look at the gun death rate overall,” Marty Langley, a policy analyst with Violence Policy Center, said in an interview Wednesday. “That includes homicides, suicides and unintentional shootings.”

There were 142 gun-related deaths statewide in 2008, according to the CDC data. Of those, 116 were suicides, 18 were homicides and eight were either unintentional, of undetermined intent or some combination of the two.

Of the 18 homicides, two were law-enforcement related, according to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Neither of those two instances occurred in Juneau. The last time a Juneau Police Department officer was involved in a shooting was October of 2007.

The number of firearms-related deaths in Alaska in 2008 is drastically low compared to other states with larger populations that ranked lower on the Violence Policy Center list. For instance, New York, which has a population of 19 million, had 963 firearm-related deaths per 100,000 people, giving it a crude gun death rate of 4.95. It ranked fourth-lowest on the list, tied with New Jersey.

A unique state

Langley acknowledged Alaskans have different reasons for owning guns “than say someone in Alabama,” due to bears and use by subsistence hunters.

Still, he said, “The reason for owning a gun really is not a factor. It’s the fact that the availability of guns is what drives the gun death numbers to be so high. The numbers kind of speak for themselves.”

Violence Policy Center Legislative Director Kristen Rand said in a statement about the study, “The equation is simple. More guns lead to more gun death, but limiting exposure to firearms saves lives.”

That is something Juneau Gun Club Board of Directors President Jay Davis says he takes issue with.

“I don’t agree with that,” he said, noting he’s a longtime National Rifle Association member. “I grew up with guns, I’m from the Midwest. You just were trained and know how to use them and knew they were dangerous.”

He said that’s why he appreciates local programs that encourage hunter education and firearms safety.

“This state is so huge, and the living conditions vary so greatly, that that’s got to be considered,” he said. “We’re a little bit different than other states.”

Many ways to read statistics

In 2007, 120 people died from firearm-related deaths in Alaska, according to the CDC; in 2006, 111.

Statistics from the National Shooting Sports Foundation show things in a different light. They said in 2009 accidental fatalities from firearms are at an all-time low, declining 42 percent in a two decades-long span. There were 1,440 accidental deaths in 1987 compared to 830 in 2007. The group also said firearms are involved in fewer than 1 percent of all accidental fatalities in the country.

Firearms ranked 10th on the list of Alaska’s top causes of injury deaths in 2005, according to the Alaska Trauma Registry and the Department of Health & Social Services. The top three causes of death were poison, drownings and motor vehicle accidents.

There may be fewer firearm-related deaths per year in Alaska compared to other states, but Langley emphasized the rate of gun deaths in Alaska has been consistently high. The past two years (2006 and 2007 data), Alaska placed in the No. 3 slot on the Violence Policy Center list. In 2008 (2005 data), Alaska took second place.

“That’s something that’s been fairly consistent,” he said.

Lax laws?

The Violence Policy Center attributes the high number of deaths in the top five states to “lax gun laws and high gun ownership rates,” the statement read. “By contrast, states with strong gun laws and low rates of gun ownership had far lower rates of firearm-related death.”

Violence Policy Center defines “lax” gun laws as those that add little or nothing to federal restrictions and have permissive laws governing the open or concealed carrying of firearms in public. States with “strong” gun laws were defined as those that add significant state regulation in addition to federal law, such as restricting access to particularly hazardous types of firearms (for example, assault weapons), setting minimum safety standards for firearms and/or requiring a permit to purchase a firearm and restrictive laws governing the open and concealed carrying of firearms in public.

Alaska state law does not require prospective purchasers of a firearm to undergo a background check prior to a private firearm transfer (i.e. a transfer by someone not a firearm dealers) or otherwise regulate private sales; does not license and regulate firearms dealers; does not prohibit the transfer or possession of assault-weapons; does not provide for the local regulation of firearms; and does not require any permit or license, which includes a background check, for the carrying of concealed firearms, according to the Legal Community Against Violence, a San Francisco-based advocacy group for ending gun violence. It is one of two states that allow concealed carrying without any permit or license.

At the bottom of the list for the lowest gun-death rates was Hawaii, followed by Massachusetts, Rhode Island and a tie between New York and New Jersey.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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