Not All Accidents Are Created Equal

Filed in National by on July 28, 2014

Josh Marshall, TPM, has a post up about gun shootings and language clarity.  While I see where he’s coming from, I think he misses the point with these “accidental” gun shootings.  Here’s how he explains it:

Over the last 18 months, we’ve made an on-going effort to highlight various cases of accidental shootings – sometimes leading to grave injuries, other times to minor ones, but usually illustrating the straightforward fact that guns are dangerous and people often do stupid things with them. Like showing them off to friends while they’re loaded, or showing them off when the gun is loaded and the gun-shower is also loaded, or leaving them unsecured where 3 year olds can find them and blow their heads off. But frequently, and increasingly of late, we get emails from readers criticizing our decision to call these shootings ‘accidents’ because that is not, in their view, what they are.
But, of course, that is exactly what they are. Of course, shooters may have fooled authorities into believing an intentional homicide was unintentional. But that’s a different issue.

Here’s an example I just received from TPM Reader, in reference to this about a pregnant Florida woman shot dead by a friend who was showing her some of his new guns …

Please, I am tired of this misrepresentation. She was not accidentally shot in the head. She was shot in the head by a grossly negligent gun owner. These are not accidents.

I am always a little mystified by these emails because at one level they seem to show a simple lack of understanding of what the word ‘accident’ means. The primary meaning of ‘accident’ is an unfortunate and usually unexpected event that happens without anyone intending it. Most of us know this. So I assume there’s no need to be belabor the point. Calling something an ‘accident’ doesn’t mean it is blameless or doesn’t involve negligence. In fact, most accidental shootings almost by definition involve some level of negligence, whether or not authorities decide it rises to the level of criminal culpability. Indeed, calling something “grossly negligent” basically requires an ‘accident’ since a person cannot be negligent about something if the outcome is one they intended.

I see what he’s saying, but I disagree – mainly because we don’t apply this sort of reasoning to our daily life.  When my kids were younger they use to think I was psychic, that I could see the future.  I always seemed to know when the glass of milk was going to spill.  Now, I wasn’t psychic, I simply saw, due to their behavior, what was going to happen.  And while they had no intention of spilling the milk, their actions resulted in spilled milk.

Texting/talking on a cell phone while driving is a similar example.  Does the person texting/talking on their phone intend to cause a car accident?  Of course not.  Are they more likely to cause a car accident due to their behavior?  Yes.

So there are degrees of accidents.  Driving carefully and having a deer dart out in front of you is a very different accident than driving while using a cell phone.  And that’s the difference when it comes to “accidental” gun shootings.  The introduction of a gun into these situations makes the tragic outcome more likely.  If the gun isn’t brought out to show off (and, really, that’s why it’s brought out) then no one would be shot.

So while technically these shootings are “accidents” they aren’t accidents in the way of “who could have known that would happen?”  These gun shootings deserve their own category, because “Oops!” doesn’t cut it, and pretending these shootings could happen to anyone simply isn’t true.  Introducing a gun into a room full of people isn’t an accident.  It’s a deliberate act with dire consequences.  When these shootings happen no one is surprised – and surprise at the outcome is one of the major components of an accident.  If you aren’t surprised that someone is shot when a gun enters the room then that isn’t really an accident.


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A stay-at-home mom with an obsession for National politics.

Comments (7)

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  1. Jason330 says:

    Great points. The term “accidents” for these types of predictable, avoidable shootings is wrong. We have to consider the tender feelings of gun nuts though. It is in the constitution.

  2. Jason330 says:

    But check this out:

    Version 1) A pregnant woman died Sunday in Florida after she was accidentally shot in the head at a friend’s house.

    Version 2) A pregnant woman died Sunday in Florida after she was shot in the head at a friend’s house.

    You can argue that we are so inured to gun violence that both sentences have the same meager emotional impact. Accidental or intentional, it barely registers. Another person was shot, and the only thing we can do is shrug. Otherwise – tyranny.

  3. radef16 says:

    You are entirely correct, the situations that you are describing are not accidents. They come under the category of “Negligent Discharge of a Firearm” which is a crime in most places. Shooting sports are among the safest for one reason, a firm set of rules that apply 100% of the time. If these rules are followed, the probability of being injured while handling a firearm are nearly zero. (Statistically, you are more likely to be hit by lightning.)

    1. All guns are always loaded.
    2. Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy.
    3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.
    4. Be sure of your target and what is beyond it.

    I often carry a loaded gun. It will leave its holster for one reason only. Its purpose is not to show off. I also have a great collection of WW1 & WW2 era rifles. When showing these I do so in a manner that first proves that they are unloaded & even knowing this, I do not let anyone point them toward another person.

    Regardless of if you ever plan on owing or handling a firearm, even if you are an adamant gun hater, please remember the rules above & follow them.

  4. Jason330 says:

    Like the pitbull that is “great around kids” up until he isn’t – I’m sure all the whack job, gun nuts shooting themselves and each other everyday follow all of those rules up until the moment they don’t.

  5. Dana says:

    So, what is your point? From the Delaware criminal code:

    § 604 Reckless endangering in the first degree; class E felony.

    A person is guilty of reckless endangering in the first degree when the person recklessly engages in conduct which creates a substantial risk of death to another person.

    Reckless endangering in the first degree is a class E felony.

    And §631:

    A person is guilty of criminally negligent homicide when, with criminal negligence, the person causes the death of another person.

    Criminally negligent homicide is a class E felony.

    The penalty for a Class E felony is up to five years in prison. It could be argued that such an accident deserves a harsher sentence, but there is no reason that the defendant couldn’t be found guilty of both crimes, with his sentences to run consecutively.

  6. Jason330 says:

    You know, Clayton Alderfer expanded on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and theorized that when a higher order need was not being met – for relatedness say – the individual will work harder to over-fulfill lower order needs like security.

    I find it interesting that the guy who always flies to the defense of gun nuts is a person who may have had a very trying childhood. I’m not saying that all gun nuts take their radical views out of some kind of cry for help, but it all seem to weave together ultimately doesn’t it?

  7. Liberal Elite says:

    @J “…the individual will work harder to over-fulfill lower order needs like security.”

    Apparent security, not real security. Remember that ~90% of all gun deaths are family and friends. This guy got two with one bullet. Where’s the security protecting his visitors??

    Oh… and isn’t the #1 cause of maternal death in the US, getting shot? Reproductive health improvements have come a long way… How are we going to reduce maternal deaths going forward??