As the National Rifle Association’s annual conference hits Nashville this weekend with 70,000 expected attendees, the organization has good reason to be upbeat. For another year, it has succeeded in stalling legislative attempts at moderate gun controls, rolling back existing state regulations and winning media battles. But there’s a looming question that should be seriously concerning the NRA and its supporters: how to reconcile the organization’s agenda with new evidence on the prevalence of gun accidents involving children.
Over the past year, new studies and media reports have documented America’s extraordinary number of child-involved shootings. These occur when a child happens upon a gun, or is left alone with one, and ends up shooting themselves or another person. Such disasters result in hundreds of child fatalities and have made American children nine times more likely to die in gun accidents than children anywhere else in the developed world. These deaths pose a massive challenge for the NRA. They demonstrate fairly conclusively that guns cannot be both safe and ubiquitous; the inevitable consequence of widespread gun ownership is a never-ending series of tragedies involving children. But, desperate to insist there’s nothing wrong, the NRA has proved itself totally incapable of responding to the problem.
The stories are endless and gruesome. A toddler shoots an infant while they are left alone in a car. A five-year-old boy shoots a three-year-old girl. And so on, ad infinitum. In Texas last month, the sheriff of Houston pleaded despairingly with the public after three children were shot dead in four days. And in widely reported Idaho incident, a two-year-old shot his mother to death in a Walmart after finding a gun in her handbag.
These cases change the terms of the gun control debate. Ordinarily whenever America’s extraordinary level of gun violence is brought up, usually after a mass killing of newly shocking savagery, the NRA offers its well-honed reply: For every bad guy with a gun, there should be a good guy with a gun. It’s the people, not the guns. These slogans, with their emphasis on personal responsibility, have been tremendously effective. But the child-involved shootings are much harder to explain away, since they don’t allow for such facile moral narratives. Talk of good guys and bad guys loses all meaning when a toddler has shot his baby brother.
Because of this difficulty, each time the NRA has been confronted with the child-death problem, it has adopted what might be called a “Look—what’s that over there?” strategy. The organization tries to paint media coverage of the deaths as the true problem; when a 9-year old killed her shooting range instructor with an Uzi, the NRA called the outcry “exploitative” and a “trick” by “anti-gun advocates in the media.” Alternatively, spokespeople point to other ways children die, and other kinds of gun deaths, to downplay the seriousness of the issue. The NRA has a habit of suddenly become very interested in bicycle accident statistics when the issue is raised, and Gun Owners of America insists that children are “more likely to die by choking on their dinner,” as if choking deaths is at all pertinent to gun deaths. Occasionally, they go as far as Tennessee State Rep. Glen Casada, who when speaking in support of the state’s new NRA-promoted guns-in parks bill, called these deaths “acts of God,” about which nothing could possibly be done.
Of course, we know one thing that could be done: We could admit that there are too many guns and get serious about reducing their number. These child-deaths are a uniquely American problem; in other countries, simply accepting such an endless string of accidental killings would be unthinkable. And as the child accident statistics have poured in, so have those on the efficacy of gun control: It’s becoming harder and harder to deny that more guns equals more violence. We also know that massive restrictions can have major positive effects. The word “Australia” is verboten among the gun rights crowd now that Australia has succeeded in cutting its firearm death rate by 59 percent after passing sweeping prohibitions on gun ownership. In fact, the Australian case offers such rock solid evidence of the life-saving potential of gun control that the pro-gun side has struggled to offer any response, except to yelp, “But you’re talking about confiscation!” (To which one might reply: “And?”) So there is a way to avoid having our preschools look like a Peckinpah film. It just involves some tough measures.
Some people insist that these gun accidents involving children are a problem of insufficient parent accountability. Writing in Slate, Justin Peters argued that when a child finds a gun and shoots herself, the parents should be criminally prosecuted. If we care about the deadly consequences of carelessness, Peters says, it’s time to get serious about punishing those who let their children near guns unsupervised.
But on this, the NRA’s position is far more reasonable than that of the reformers. It’s unfair to blame the parents, because even the most responsible gun owners can make mistakes and have accidents. To believe that absent-mindedness amounts to criminality is astonishingly unforgiving. In the case of a Florida two-year-old who shot himself in the chest in January, the parents had stored the gun securely in the glove compartment, unaware that their mischievous son would be able to wriggle his way in. These parents took what they believed were the wise steps for gun owners; the point is that owning a gun to begin with is unwise.
Consider the Idaho Wal-Mart shooting. Speaking to the press in the aftermath, the victim’s father-in-law was furious at gun control advocates who attempted to blame the mother for the tragedy, saying: “They are painting Veronica as irresponsible, and that is not the case… Veronica had had hand gun classes; [she was] licensed to carry, and this wasn’t just some purse she had thrown her gun into.” Indeed, the gun had been in a sealed pocket specially designed for a firearm.
But the very fact that the victim was a responsible gun owner should be unsettling. It suggests there is no such thing as safe gun possession. There’s a tradeoff between accessibility and safety; if we want people to be able to defend themselves by having rapid access to guns, we have to accept that a lot of children will die by accident. The New York Times was therefore wrong when it classified these deaths as “eminently preventable,” suggesting mere parental mindfulness could have helped. For this, every single gun owner would have to exercise the highest possible level of caution at all times, with no room for even the tiniest error or slip-up. It’s an unlikely prospect, especially considering that nearly half of gun owners with children keep their guns unlocked as a matter of course, let alone by accident. Preventing these deaths will require more than individual care; it will require fewer guns to begin with.
Since they strongly oppose both ownership restrictions and parent accountability, one might expect the NRA to emphasize safety. Yet the prevailing attitude appears to be that even talk of basic responsible ownership is for wusses and Constitution-haters. The NRA has waged all-out war against pediatricians and the CDC for recommending gun safety to parents, lobbying hard for laws to prohibit doctors from even discussing firearms risks with families. They’ve also stood staunchly against any effort to require that guns be kept safely stored out of the reach of children. The massive Nashville conference schedule contains endless presentations on the necessity of an armed citizenry, but apparently not a single event on safety or training. There are all kinds of rousing flourishes about “our role as an Armed American Citizen in the future challenges to our nation,” and how one’s weapon must always be at the ready because “danger can lurk around any given corner.” There are even sessions to discuss new strategies for skirting or dismantling the measly remaining gun control laws.
But safety, as always, is the organization’s bottom priority. (The organization occasionally touts its “Eddie Eagle” safety program for kids, but this has been dismissed as a program to market guns to children that is backed by little evidence.) In reality, there’s not a whit of interest in trying to curtail cowboyish recklessness, thanks to which the bodies of inquisitive youngsters and their unfortunate parents will continue to pile up.
This weekend’s gathering will be a buoyant jamboree of gun-themed gaiety. Over three packed days at hundreds of booths, guns will be sold, caressed and discussed nonstop. The conference boasts seminars on everything from the history of sniping to how to defend yourself from “jihadist social media.” The NRA has planned a plethora of celebrity guest appearances including Iran Contra drug trafficker Oliver North and aging one-hit-wonder guitarist Ted Nugent (of “Barack Obama is a subhuman mongrel” fame.) But accidental child shootings cast a terrible shadow over all this revelry. The gravity of the problem is now an undeniable fact, and this makes gun advocates squirm — it’s hard to see how such cases could ever be prevented except by having fewer guns.
The tradeoffs between safety and accessibility put the NRA in a bind. Either it must acknowledge that these deaths will be a logical consequence of its policies, or it must retreat from its absolutist position on regulation. Neither seems likely, which is why the organization will spend its time in Nashville listening to Nugent and studying military history, carefully avoiding the one conversation it is desperate not to have.