Firearm sales hit a record high last year as the FBI processed more than 27.5 million background checks on gun buyers. This year, sales have eased up a bit, but they're still on track to hit the second-highest number ever.

Despite the dramatic increase in the number of guns in circulation, though, there was an interesting statistic that dropped. No, it wasn't the crime rate, which, although substantially lower than it was decades ago, has been inching higher in recent periods. Instead it was the number of accidental firearms fatalities.

Handgun under chain and padlock

Image source: Getty Images.

A shot in the dark

It's believed by many that the proliferation of firearms will increase the number of violent crimes committed, as well as the number of accidental deaths. For example, it's often cited that access to firearms increases the risk for suicide and being the victim of homicide, since, by owning a gun, you're supposedly more likely to kill a family member than a criminal.

Laying aside for a moment the mistaken idea that the purpose of owning a gun is to kill a criminal -- a deterrent to a crime is a big factor -- FBI data shows that the number of homicides committed with a firearm are steadily falling. For example, handguns are still the leading weapon used to commit a homicide, but the number has fallen 9% between 2010 and 2014, the latest data available, despite the number of pistols and revolvers produced increasing 61% over that same time frame.

Chart showing the falling number of murders committed with a handgun vs. the number of handguns manufactured

Data source: FBI and BATFE. Chart by author.

Similarly, the use of rifles to commit homicides is negligible in the scheme of things despite the amount of attention supposed "assault rifles" receive in the media. The FBI says exactly 248 homicides were committed with a rifle in 2014, or 2% of the total, but 57% fewer than the 435 committed by using a club, hammer, or other blunt object. In fact, 660 homicides were committed using hands, fists, and feet.

Long guns grow in importance

That's important because modern sporting rifles have been key drivers of sales in recent periods for gun manufacturers. In its fiscal third-quarter earnings report in March, the owner of the Smith & Wesson brand American Outdoor Brands (SWBI -0.56%) reported that long gun sales rose 32% year over year while handgun revenue fell 6.5%. Over the nine-month period of its fiscal year, handgun sales were up 23% while long gun sales surged 71% higher. Industry peer Sturm, Ruger (RGR -0.74%), the country's largest firearms manufacturer, saw a 27% increase in rifle sales, and models such as its AR-556 helped drive those sales higher.

A Smith & Wesson M&P 15 modern sporting rifle

Image source: Smith & Wesson. 

The presence of all these new firearms on the market would presumably have also led to an increase in the number of people accidentally killing themselves, but it turns out, that's not the case, either.

Safety above all else

National Safety Council just released its Injury Facts 2017 report compiling 2015 data, and it found that accidental firearms fatalities tumbled 17% from 2014 to 2015 to just 489 deaths, or just 0.003% of the total, the lowest since record-keeping began in 1903. And that decline occurred even as total accidental deaths from all other listed causes actually rose 8% to 146,571. The NSC also notes there is a one in 370 chance of dying by firearm assault, or about three times lower than from dying from falling. In fact, it says the No. 1 cause of unintentional death in the country comes from accidental poisoning, something that wasn't even prevalent till the 1990s, yet it has since rocketed to the top spot.

Even with the uptick in violent crime that's been recorded recently, lawful gun owners remain concerned with safety, which explains why despite soaring gun sales, few people are actually accidentally injured by them. Crimes committed with guns will always be a problem, but the declining rates of commission using firearms of any kind suggests the proliferation of guns may be having a deterrent effect.