Gun Safety Laws Are Pointless If Nobody Bothers to Enforce Them

Crime
A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Oct. 24 2013 5:43 PM

Gun Safety Laws Are Pointless If Nobody Bothers to Enforce Them

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Glock pistols are displayed at the Defence and Security Exhibition on September 10, 2013 in London, England.

Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

On Saturday, a 2-year-old North Carolina girl was playing in her house when she found her father’s loaded handgun hidden under the couch. She grabbed the gun, shot herself, and died later that day. On Sunday, the girl’s father, a 19-year-old felon named Melvin Clark, was arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter.

I’m glad Clark was charged, and I hope he’s convicted. The speed with which charges were brought against Clark is somewhat surprising, given that, as the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer has reported, there have been several unintentional shootings in the Fayetteville area recently that have not resulted in charges. In March, a Robeson County man was cleaning his shotgun when it unexpectedly discharged, killing his 10-year-old son; it does not appear that charges were ever brought against him. (I’ve contacted the district attorney’s office, and will update this post when I get a definite answer.) That same month, a Columbus County man was playing with his gun when it suddenly discharged, injuring his friend; no charges were filed. In 2011, a Tabor City, N.C., man fired a rifle he thought was unloaded. It wasn’t, and the bullet went through the walls of his house and into a neighbor’s yard, striking three people, one of whom later died. The man was never charged.

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These cases involved adults, not children, so they’re not directly comparable to this past weekend’s shooting. But the broader point still stands: Except in rare circumstances, guns don’t just magically go off on their own. So-called accidental discharges can generally be ascribed to carelessness on the part of the gun owner. The state can encourage compliance with gun safety protocols by charging those people whose failure to follow them results in injury or death. That’s one reason why I support prosecuting gun-owning parents whose children die or are injured in unintentional shootings: to send a message to other gun-owning parents, and hopefully encourage them to take gun safety more seriously. But that message gets muddled if the laws are inconsistently enforced.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

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