Stop Calling Children’s Gun Deaths “Accidental”

They’re the fault of criminally negligent parents and guardians—who must be prosecuted.

There were three accidental child shootings in Houston last week–but we shouldn't think of them as accidents.

Stern words and high shelves can’t be counted on to deter a curious child from finding and playing with an unsecured gun.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images/Thinkstock

It’s been a bad week in the Houston area. On Feb. 27, a 3-year-old boy died after unintentionally shooting himself in the neck with a gun he found in his house. On March 1, a 4-year-old boy died after unintentionally shooting himself with a gun he allegedly found stashed under a bed. On Monday of this week, a 6-year-old boy was unintentionally shot in the abdomen by his 5-year-old brother with a gun the boys allegedly mistook for a toy; the 6-year-old was, at last report, in critical condition at a local hospital.

That’s three child shootings in the Houston area over four days. In all three cases, the guns were left out in the open, loaded and unsecured, by allegedly responsible adults who should have known better. It’s easy to think of these incidents as “accidental” shootings, and, indeed, that’s how they’ve been described by some media and law enforcement sources. But these aren’t accidents. They’re the completely predictable consequences of criminally negligent behavior on the part of these kids’ parents and guardians, and they should be treated as such.

The Houston Chronicle had a good story this week that noted that, even though relatively few child deaths from unintentional shootings are recorded each year, the deaths that do occur are particularly wrenching because “they are children whose deaths would not have happened had adults close to them done what common sense, and often the law, call for. The weapons in [the three Houston shootings], all pistols, were found in a purse, backpack, and under a bed.”

This is against the law in Texas. The state considers it a criminal misdemeanor to leave a readily dischargeable firearm in a place where it’s accessible to a child. But safe gun storage is also just common sense. Little kids are good at finding things, at getting into places where they’re not supposed to be. Little kids are also, by definition, not adults, and prone to doing things more mature minds might avoid. If you’re a parent, you already know this. If you’re a gun-owning parent, you should know that stern words and high shelves can’t be counted on to deter a curious child from finding and playing with an unsecured gun.

The words we use to describe things affect the way we respond to them. “Accidental” implies that nobody is at fault—that the shooting just happened, unpredictably, like an earthquake or other act of God. If no one is at fault, then no one is to blame, and that’s how most police departments and prosecutors treat these shootings: no fault, no blame, and no crime.

But you can absolutely predict tragic outcomes from irresponsible gun-storage practices, and you can easily assign blame. I’ve never heard of unintentional child shootings in which the shooters were master safecrackers or expert lockpickers, bypassing layers of security in order to find the guns with which they shoot themselves or their siblings. No, they’re just kids, and most kids only ever access their parents’ guns if those parents leave their guns out where they can be accessed.

This should never, ever happen. There are some simple gun-storage rules that, if followed, would all but eliminate the risk of unintentional child shooting deaths in this country. If the gun is loaded, it should be on your person. Otherwise, it should be in a gun safe. It is never OK to leave a loaded gun on a table, or under a bed, or on a high shelf, and simply assume that your kids won’t find it, or that they know better than to touch it if they do. That’s not just bad parenting; that’s willful self-delusion. Anyone who has ever spent more than three minutes around kids knows that kids don’t know better, about anything. They lack the self-control, life experience, and emotional maturity to reliably stop themselves from making bad decisions.

Parents should know better. And when they don’t—where gun storage is concerned—they should be held responsible. Some states agree. According to the nonprofit Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 28 states (plus D.C.) have passed child access prevention laws (known as CAP laws), which make it a crime to store firearms in a way that makes them readily accessible to children. While there isn’t much data to draw from, the data that exist suggest that strong CAP laws correlate with declines in child-shooting deaths in those jurisdictions.

Still, even in states where these laws exist, they’re both inconsistent—standards and penalties for culpability vary widely from state to state—and inconsistently applied, with prosecutors often choosing not to pursue cases against negligent parents out of sympathy, perhaps, or a sense that these cases are hard to win. And that’s understandable: These shootings are tragedies, after all, and why compound a family’s misery by sending a grieving parent to jail? But CAP laws are only effective as a deterrent if they’re vigorously enforced. Let’s hope that Houston police and prosecutors choose to do so here.