In December 2012, a 2-year-old Minnesota boy named Neegnco Xiong was accidentally shot and killed by his 4-year-old brother, with a handgun their father had stashed under a pillow. After the shooting, police found several other unsecured firearms in the house. Last Friday the boy’s father, 31-year-old Kao Xiong, was convicted on manslaughter charges in the death of his son. He faces up to four years in prison.
I’m sorry to hear that Kao Xiong might go to prison. Jailing him seems like it will only serve to further rend a family that has already been torn apart by an unimaginable tragedy. Convicting Kao Xiong, on the other hand, sends a message that society should not and will not tolerate reckless gun ownership, and that so-called accidental shootings, far from being random events, almost always result from carelessness and negligence on the part of the gun owner.
Since writing about the accidental shooting death of 15-year-old Saylor Slone Martine, I’ve been deluged with emails (keep them coming!) about children who’ve been shot and killed because their parents or guardians failed to properly store and secure their firearms. The names keep coming in: 3-year-old Jadarrius Speights, who accidentally shot and killed himself last month with his uncle’s handgun, which he found in a backpack; 11-year-old Jarvis Jackson, who was accidentally shot and killed by a 4-year-old boy last month after their baby sitter brought a handgun to the house for personal protection and then fell asleep after leaving the gun loaded and unsecured on the kitchen table; 4-year-old Cody Ryan Hall, who accidentally shot and killed himself in April with a family-owned handgun he found in an unlocked gun case.
All of these incidents could have been prevented if the gun owners had just been paying attention. And it’s incumbent on civil society to encourage gun owners to do just that. Prosecuting the parents who own the guns used in these incidents is one option, but not the only one, and maybe not even the best one. I’ve been advocating for stronger child access prevention laws, in hopes that they might have a deterrent effect. But I also think we should address accidental gun deaths with a comprehensive public health approach: educating gun owners about gun safety; incentivizing the use of trigger locks and gun safes; advertising the merits of gun safety as intently as we advertise the merits of seatbelt use. Imagine if, instead of or in addition to sentencing Kao Xiong to jail, the judge had him make a few PSAs talking about how his son died. If you saw that ad on television, you would watch it. It would be effective.
Of course, the most effective way to eliminate accidental shooting deaths would be to eliminate guns. But that’s never going to happen, and, frankly, I don’t think it should happen—contrary to what some might think, I’m not flogging this issue as some sneaky method of advocating the abolition of gun rights. But the right to bear arms ought to go hand in hand with the responsibility to bear them safely. Most of the arguments for gun control would disappear if the gun lobby spent half as much time encouraging the second half of that statement as they do defending the first.