This month , a 4-year-old boy in Florida found a .45-caliber handgun in the family car and shot his mother in the back while she was driving down the highway. As shocking as such stories are, we’ve been reading about them for a long time. Just how long becomes clear in Peter Manseau ’s haunting little book “ Melancholy Accidents .”
Like something from the mind of Edward Gorey, it’s a record of “three centuries of stray bullets and bad luck.” The collection would be grimly funny if each of these anecdotes didn’t involve real friends, spouses and children getting shot.
Manseau began collecting gun accident reports while doing research in 18th- and 19th-century newspaper archives for his previous book, a history of religion in the United States. He kept seeing the phrase “melancholy accident,” and he began keeping track of the incidents.
In this book, he presents those tragedies in a macabre parade of blasted bodies and ruined lives — one by one, without comment:
June 14, 1860. A Little Girl Shot — We have just been informed that a little boy, son of a Mr. Evans of Cass country, residing some 10 miles south of this place, accidentally shot his little sister. The following are the facts as we have learned them. The little boy aimed to shoot a bird, not noticing his little sister, who was in the range of the gun. The ball entered the back and passed out at the breast, dangerously wounding her. No hopes of her recovery. The Plymouth Weekly Democrat
And so it goes. Hunting buddies blow each other away, fathers shoot sons, children kill parents, each other, themselves. As Manseau notes in his introduction, the collection provides “a depressingly clear view of the many ways we find to accidentally shoot ourselves.” The public’s outrage rises and falls, but one thing remains clear, he says: “We have been failing with guns for centuries.”
Manseau grew up in Boston without guns in his house, but like lots of boys, he thought they were exciting and fun. Today, he has no problem with hunters or others who need guns, but he’s troubled by the push for more open-carry laws. “Going armed to the grocery store makes about as much sense to me as bringing along a chain saw,” he said in an email.
He’s not optimistic that anything will change soon in the United States. “After every mass shooting, two things seem to happen,” he says, “a clamor rises for stricter gun-control laws, and gun purchases spike. Gun-control advocates believe laws will protect them; gun rights activists believe they must protect themselves. Pessimistically, I can’t help but think both these beliefs are delusions.”
While acknowledging that his compendium of mayhem may read like a political argument against guns, that wasn’t his intention. The people he’d really like to reach are gun owners. Their adaptation of smart guns, which electronically limit who can fire them, is our best chance for progress, he says.
“Who could have guessed that it would be seen as important to type a code into our phones to be able to use them?” Manseau asks. “And yet this feature that would’ve been considered a nuisance 10 years ago has become a selling point because it’s now presented as a matter of personal security. A widespread technological change like that may impede some handgun owners’ quick-draw fantasies, but many of those who own guns for hunting or other practical purposes would embrace it.”
As a father of young daughters, he was most haunted by the stories he found of parents accidentally killing their own children. He points to a short report from 1873, in which a man who had unintentionally killed his son “slowly pined away from grief and remorse, and died of a broken heart.”
“The pain he must have felt is unimaginable,” Manseau says, “but moreover, it suggests that the initial shot in every story of a fatal gun mishap is really only the beginning. It echoes through all the lives around it.”
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Peter Manseau
Melville House. 240 pp. $22.95