Researchers seeking to identify each state's most "distinctive" kind of injury-related death uncovered a pattern that could help cut shootings across the South.
The study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that seven states — West Virginia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama and Tennessee — all suffered from disproportionately high rates of unintentional firearm deaths.
The researchers noted that none of the states have laws requiring the safe storage of guns, which have been shown to prevent accidental shootings, particularly among children.
"Restricting access for unauthorized individuals through safe storage of firearms might help to reduce the large disparity of unintentional firearm deaths occurring in these states," the Johns Hopkins researchers wrote.
Many gun-rights advocates oppose such measures, saying the government has no right to determine how people keep themselves safe at home. Training and education are more effective, they say. Some warn that safe storage laws are being used by the government to take people's guns away.
The researchers said they did not set out to focus on such a polarizing issue; the point was to borrow popular social-media mapping techniques to identify public health problems that could be related to local policy or culture — and could help states explore gaps in prevention efforts. They collected data on fatal injuries from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2004 to 2013.
The gun deaths stood out most.
When the researchers mapped out what type of injury death in each state surpassed the national average, they saw a swath of states across the Southeast and Appalachia where the top result was accidental firearm death.
"If one part of the country is seeing more incidents of death than the rest of the country, it to me highlights an area for prevention," said Sara Heins, a doctorate student at John Hopkins who conducted the study.
Another possible pattern emerged in the West: In California, Oregon, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah, the top result was "firearm, legal intervention" — deaths that occurred in encounters involving a law enforcement official, including scenarios in which an officer was shot. But rather than point to a public-health policy fix, the study revealed a lack of data nationwide on police shootings.
There is no reliable, nationwide accounting of police shootings, although some news organizations and researchers have compiled crowdsourced data.
Because of that shortcoming, such shootings are likely under-reported, the researchers wrote.
The researchers also found a disproportionate number of accidental motor vehicle crashes in Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. That may be because those states have relatively few laws that require certain practices known to reduce car injuries, including seat belts, ignition locks for drunk-driving convicts, booster seats for children and restrictions on nighttime driving for teenagers, the researchers said.
But in this case as well, the lack of consistent data made it difficult to draw conclusions or suggest fixes, Heins said.