On Saturday, Dec. 7, a 3-year-old Indiana boy died after unintentionally shooting himself in the head with a gun he found in his home. According to local press accounts, police believe the gun had been left loaded and unattended on a kitchen counter. “I've known [the boy’s family] had guns; they've carried them in public on their side, they've got permits for them, and I just thought they always were a little bit more responsible than that,” said a neighbor.
I just thought they always were a little bit more responsible than that. When you report on unintentional child shooting deaths, you hear that sentiment a lot. Sometimes it’s in reference to the dead child’s family, sometimes it refers to the dead child himself. He had been around guns all his life, they say. They were a real gun family. We always assumed they knew what they were doing.
Since the beginning of May, I have been writing about unintentional child shooting deaths in America—tracking their frequency, suggesting legislative remedies, and, more than anything, trying to understand how and why these so-called accidents happen. They do not happen often, in absolute terms. Mother Jones’ Mark Follman recently estimated that just 84 children aged 12 and under have died in gun accidents since the Sandy Hook shooting last year. When they do happen, though, the pattern always seem the same. Again and again, kids shoot themselves or other kids with their parents' guns, guns that were left in the corner, or on a nightstand, or under a pillow. These firearms were put away loaded, or with a forgotten round in the chamber. The kids shouldn’t have been able to access these guns, but somehow still did. They die in red states and in blue states. They die in rural and urban areas. They die as toddlers and as teenagers.
As much as anything else, these children are victims of faulty assumptions, all of which stem from the idea that the state has no business establishing and enforcing coherent gun safety standards.
There are a few simple rules that, if followed, would almost entirely eliminate unintentional child shooting deaths. Always keep your gun on your person or at arm’s length. If it is not on your person, it should be in a gun safe, preferably unloaded. When you are unloading the gun, check to see if the chamber is clear. Never let your children use a gun unsupervised.
These are not controversial rules. They’re common sense. But rather than make them explicit, we tend to assume that gun owners understand them.
That’s the first faulty assumption. It begets others.
Parents assume that young children will not be able to find or operate their guns—and, thus, that it’s OK to leave loaded guns on tables, or in corners. They assume that older children know better than to do something stupid with a gun—and, thus, that it is unnecessary to supervise these kids when guns are on the premises.
The gun lobby has its own set of gun safety assumptions, and those are just as flawed. The NRA and other interest groups argue that gun owners already understand safety protocols, and that it is condescending and unnecessary to codify those rules. They believe that parents whose kids die in unintentional shootings are outliers, and not representative of the broader gun-owning population. They say that individual gun owners are better equipped than the state to determine the best way to store and secure their guns.
And when a child dies in an unintentional shooting, onlookers and government officials jump in with their own set of faulty assumptions. Just one of those crazy accidents. That’s what the coroner of Cumberland County, Ky., said this spring after a 5-year-old boy unintentionally shot and killed his 2-year-old sister with a loaded, child-sized rifle his parents kept propped in a corner of their home. You hear that sort of thing a lot—that when a child dies in an unintentional shooting, it is an accident, rather than the natural consequence of an ad hoc gun safety regime that chooses to leave best practices implicit rather than explicit. When we use the word “accident” in, say, the context of a car crash, it doesn’t necessarily mean that absolutely no one is at fault. But in the context of a child shooting death, it’s almost always used to absolve the parents or guardians from blame.
These assumptions—that every child shooting is an accident, and that gun safety laws couldn’t possibly have helped—have been validated by state legislatures that have shown little interest in promoting and enforcing meaningful child access prevention laws. This is where we are today. Regulatory bodies assume that children will avoid gun accidents rather than taking steps to ensure that they will. How did it get to this point? And how might that start to change?
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At the end of June, a Kentucky man named William Wyatt was cleaning his handgun while two of his grandchildren looked on. At some point, Wyatt turned away for just a few moments, long enough for his 4-year-old grandson to grab the gun, point it at his 6-year-old sister, and pull the trigger. The pistol was still loaded. The girl died at the hospital that night. As a local television station put it, the whole thing was “a tragic accident.”
Was it, though? Might it be the case that “virtually any mishap that occurs while cleaning guns is not really an ‘accident,’ but a failure to apply safety rules”? And isn’t it also obvious that gun owners ought to “store guns so they are not accessible to untrained or unauthorized persons”? And that “once children are mature enough to begin handling guns, they must do so only under qualified adult supervision”?
These are quotes from the NRA Home Firearm Safety Manual, the handbook the organization gives to people who take its four-hour home firearm safety class. Say what you will about the NRA’s lobbying efforts, but the organization does more to promote firearms training than any other group in the country. The NRA certifies firearms instructors. It holds safety classes. It publishes instructional materials. The NRA does a lot to promote safe behavior around guns. And this handbook has a lot of great advice.
But the NRA is committed to making sure that its safety recommendations remain just that—recommendations. In a 2002 paper for the academic journal The Future of Children, James Forman Jr. wrote, “Although pro-gun advocates are divided on the efficacy of trigger locks and other safe-storage mechanisms, they are unanimous in their condemnation of any legislation mandating such devices.”
The group’s aversion to gun safety legislation continues today. In a recent video posted on the NRA’s website, firearms enthusiast and pundit Colion Noir derided calls for gun safety as a “placebo” advanced by disingenuous liberals whose real goal is to revoke gun owners’ Second Amendment rights. “Somewhere between screaming for gun control, and then being called out for actually wanting gun confiscation, the anti-gunners decided to change the phrase ‘gun control’ to ‘gun safety,’ ” says Noir. He then asserts that all this gun safety rhetoric is not only disingenuous, but superfluous: “All trained gun users learn that there are four rules of gun safety that will prevent any and all unintentional death, injury, or damage caused by improper possession, storage, or handling of firearms.”
Do they? A nationwide survey by Johns Hopkins found that “more than one-third of respondents did not know that a pistol can still be fired even if its ammunition magazine has been removed.” In 2000 the American Journal of Public Health published a study about firearms storage practices in American households where children were present. Among other things, the authors found that 55 percent of homes with both children and firearms present “were reported to have 1 or more firearms in an unlocked place.” A 2006 study of firearms storage practices reported that “[m]ore than one third of the parents in this sample said there was a gun in their home that was stored loaded, unlocked, or both.”