Crime is Slate’s crime blog. Like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter @slatecrime.
Last week, I wrote about the 5-year-old Kentucky boy who accidentally shot and killed his 2-year-old sister with a .22-caliber rifle he had received as a gift. I asked whether, in cases like these, the parents who allow their children to access and fire a loaded gun should be prosecuted for criminal negligence. The answer to that question varies from state to state. In Kentucky, the answer is no—state law protects parents from prosecution in cases like these. In New Jersey, however, the answer is yes.
In April, a 4-year-old New Jersey boy accidentally shot and killed his 6-year-old neighbor with his father’s .22-caliber rifle. On Monday, the boy’s father, Anthony Senatore, was arrested and charged with five counts of second-degree child endangerment (for storing five unsecured firearms in places where they were accessible to his children), and one count of third-degree child endangerment (for storing one of those firearms in a place where it endangered the welfare of the 6-year-old who was killed). Each second-degree count could potentially bring 5 to 10 years in prison, which means that if Senatore is convicted, he could theoretically face up to 50 years in prison. (He won’t, of course, get 50 years in prison, but, if he is convicted, he will likely face some jail time—if you are convicted of a second-degree offense in New Jersey, it is presumed that you will face a prison term.)
I am not usually a fan of symbolic prosecutions. Too many people are imprisoned in this country, many on small charges that could have better been addressed with probation or counseling. Jailing Senatore for 50 years—or even 5 years—seems like an overly harsh response to what was essentially an accident.
But a lot of people are accidentally shot and injured or killed in this country every year, and many of these injuries and deaths could have been prevented if the gun owners had just followed some simple safety precautions. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence reports that “in twelve states where [laws intended to prevent children’s access to firearms] had been in effect for at least one year, unintentional firearm deaths fell by 23% from 1990-94 among children under 15 years of age.” But these laws are only effective if they are enforced, which is why, in the big picture, I think prosecuting cases like this one may serve to deter other people from leaving their guns unsecured in a place where they might cause an accidental death.
I don’t think symbolic prosecutions work in most drug cases. Say the newspapers report that somebody has received 10 years in jail for heroin possession. That’s not going to stop anyone from using heroin, because heroin is addictive. And it’s not going to stop anyone from selling heroin, because you can make a lot of money from doing so, and, anyway, you know the risks you run when you sign up to be a drug dealer. The reasons to keep using or selling heroin are generally stronger than the reasons not to.
But there’s no good reason to keep your guns lying around where your kids can get at them. You don’t do that because you’re addicted to it, or because it will make you rich. You do it out of ignorance, or inertia. And even though it seems like simple logic—if you own guns and also are raising children, you should store those guns in a place where the children can’t access them—lots of people still refuse to follow basic safety protocols. A big, public prosecution in a case like Senatore’s might help change their minds.