BANG! It went off! Off it went! (and off I allegedly go...)

Other than activist sites like Handgun Control, Inc., I sometimes think I'd be hard-pressed to find an outfit more dedicated to gun control than the Philadelphia Inquirer. While I've written innumerable blog posts on the subject, I invite anyone who's interested to simply take a look at this package of articles and editorials the Inquirer has assembled for its readers.

To me, it proves little more than the fact that criminals kill people with guns. To people on the other side, it proves that guns kill people.

As I've observed before, there's no reconciling these two points of view.

An especially articulate advocate of the anti-gun point of view is John Grogan, author of the bestselling Marley and Me. In his latest column, he revisits the guns-and-teens argument I addressed in another long post, only this time he turns up the volume and calls for a parental no-guns pledge.

In looking at teen shootings, Grogan does not see bad people misusing guns, but the reverse: bad guns which "go off" and devastate the lives of clueless teenagers.

But at this party, police said, he pulled out a .45-caliber semiautomatic his father kept beneath the mattress. Plenty of high-risk high jinks followed. The gun discharged at least once without injury.

It was another gunshot, about 3 a.m. after a night of drinking, that took the life of O'Neill's longtime friend and classmate at Cardinal O'Hara High School, Scott Sheridan, 17.

As police described it, the killing was alcohol-fueled horseplay gone awry. O'Neill pointed the gun at his friend, who tried to swat the barrel away. End of story. End of life.

And this is what we all know in our hearts despite the gun lobby's rhetoric: That teen would be alive today had a gun not been kept in the home. Without it, we'd simply be talking about another illegal underage drinking party.

I don't know whether the shooting was accidental or not, but I do know that absent a design defect, guns don't discharge themselves absent human responsible agency.

Once again, here are the reported facts:

One of those in attendance told investigators the gun, which was stored between the mattress and box spring in O’Neill’s parents’ bedroom, was being "handled unsafely," so he left the party, according to the affidavit. He also said that at one point, O’Neill had pointed the gun at him.
Pointing [allegedly] a gun at someone is more than mishandling of a weapon. If done intentionally, it constitutes a legal assault. If I were so irresponsible as to run out and point my gun at someone, I would be committing a potentially deadly crime even if I never fired it. But whether I fired it or not, how can my irresponsible action be blamed on my gun, any more than it would be my car's fault if I played "chicken" and ran someone off the road without actually colliding?

There's more:

Authorities were told O’Neill pulled the weapon out more than once during the party, including during a beer run O’Neill and others made to a Middletown Township barh. While in the car, O’Neill gave the gun to another person who then "shot the unoccupied vehicle of someone with whom the rest of the boys had a problem," the affidavit states.
More gun crime [allegedly] right there. Shooting into an "unoccupied vehicle" is about as safe as shooting into an "unoccupied house." How would a gun do either by itself?

Finally, we come to the fatal shooting:

By the end of the night, O’Neill, Sheridan and two others were alone when O’Neill got the gun and turned on the laser designator. O’Neill put the laser light on the three friends, who proceeded to duck behind a car. O’Neill dropped the gun to his side and the friends came out from behind the car. It was then that O’Neill raised the gun and pointed it at Sheridan and Sheridan knocked it away. The weapon went off and Sheridan collapsed in the driveway.
If someone did that to me and I was armed, I would be fully justified in shooting him.

I'm having a bit of trouble seeing the above alleged conduct as "accidental," as it strikes me as criminally reckless disregard for human life. We do not excuse drunken driving, nor do we blame the drunk driver's car. According to the report, the 17 year old was in a car with the gun on a "beer run" when it was fired at another car. I don't know who was driving, but if they're old enough to drive, they're old enough to understand and appreciate adult dangers, including the dangers posed by discharging guns. Saying "that teen would be alive today had a gun not been kept in the home" makes about as much sense as it would to say "that teen would be alive today had a car not been kept in the garage" had the same kid died in an auto accident. The "keeping" of the gun is not the cause of its use, any more than the "keeping" of a car would be. How can the keeping of something be a cause unless the thing itself is the cause?

It's not the keeping; it's the use of either that is the cause.

Moreover, the 17 year old in this allegedly committed a crime by possessing the gun. If the facts are as alleged, the kid committed a whole series of crimes, as do so many juveniles in Philadelphia.

I am sick of reading that the laws aren't there or that we need more. There was allegedly a lot of illegal underage drinking too; should society prohibit alcohol to stop minors from having "access" to it?

Grogan continues, and offers a pledge for all parents:

A reader reminded me recently of the utter insufficiency of the term handgun violence.

Handgun violence doesn't begin to capture it. "Call it what it is," the writer scolded. "Murder."

But that's just it. It's not always murder. Many times it is just carelessness or stupidity or, in far too many cases, a child's insatiable curiosity or a teen's foolish flash of bravado.

Which brings me to a point I've made before. It comes down to parents. No one else is going to fix this problem. No one else is going to protect our kids in our own homes.

Come on, moms and dads. We can do this. Let's take an oath together:

I hereby promise that as long as I have minor children living in my home, or even occasionally visiting my home, I will not have a gun. Period. And if I am unwilling to make this promise, I at least vow to equip all of my guns with trigger locks rendering them inoperable without the key, which I will keep on a chain around my neck at all times.

Is that too much to ask?

It might be too little to ask, depending on your point of view. Had there not been a car, had there not been alcohol, had there not been a parental vacation, that boy might be alive today.

I'd like to pose another question: other than the fact that there are laws forbidding minors from possessing guns or drinking, what is so sacrosanctly naive about the age of seventeen?

Would things would have been different had the boy been eighteen instead of seventeen? One of my best friends committed suicide at 19, and I've known plenty of people who committed suicide when they were much older. When I was 17, I was just as aware of the dangers of guns as I was at 18. It seems to me that if you have so little sense as to be unable to refrain from misbehaving at 17, passing the magic age of majority isn't going to change it.

In fact, if crime statistics are to be accorded any weight, adults are far more culpable than minors. Which means they don't "grow out of it" -- they grow into it (or just persist in their criminal behavior into adulthood). Teens who shoot teens are far more likely to make it into the news than adults who shoot adults, precisely because it juvenile shootings are unusual, and more shocking to newspaper readers.

But I think there's another factor entering into the anti-gun editorials as an unintended consequence of the legal system.

Teen "innocence."

Think about it.

These kids, their families, their defense attorneys, and the entire array of anti-gun forces have a vested interest in maintaining an abiding belief in the innocence and cluelessness of teen shooters, and the overarching evil of the gun. It is to their mutual advantage to argue -- ad nauseam -- that these innocents (which of course they are until proven guilty) had no idea what they were doing. What this means is that in nearly every case involving a teen shooting, the "GUN WENT OFF" argument must and will be made.

Now, I realize that in our legal system, the presumption of innocence exists for an adult as much as it does for a child. But whether sitting on a jury or sitting at home reading a newspaper, the public is only so gullible. They're just not as likely to believe the "gun went off" argument when it comes from a grown man (with a long criminal record or not) as when it comes from a child. (Bear in mind that teen criminal records are usually withheld from the public, and rarely mentioned in news accounts.)

As it happens, this morning's Inquirer has a writeup on another teen shooting in which a 16 year old boy shot a 14 year old girl. The story? They were "playing" with the gun. "Russian roulette," as it were:

At one point, the boy asked the girl to play Russian roulette.

"She said no, he pulled the trigger and the gun went off," Walker said. "After that, he left the scene."

Police said the bullet entered her chest and exited without striking any vital organs.

She is expected to make a full recovery, Walker said.

Police had not recovered the weapon last night, though it was unclear how the boy intended to play Russian roulette with a 9mm handgun, which is usually a semiautomatic. For Russian roulette, one needs a revolver.

Yes, it is very difficult to play Russian roulette with a semiauto. In fact, it is impossible! The word "roulette" itself means spinning, as in a roulette wheel, or of course the cylinders of a revolver. Even teenagers in my day (the ones who grew up without today's advantage of video games) knew that, and they knew it from watching television.

Obviously, I don't know the parties, so I cannot assert that in this individual case the boy might not have been so mentally retarded as to imagine that Russian roulette could be played with a semiauto, but I'm assuming that because he was [allegedly] carrying it and he did [allegedly] use it, he must have known how it worked.

Isn't it theoretically possible that in cases like this, someone in or advising the families realizes that under our legal system there is such a thing as criminal intent? Not that any lawyer would ever advise a client to commit perjury, mind you. But is it not possible that some people know what is in their best interest to say even before they consult a lawyer?

I haven't even addressed remorse. Fortunately for me, I learned about the dangers of guns before I learned how to shoot, and before my father let me have one. The idea of discharging it at a friend was as unimaginable to me as it would have been to try to run a friend down with a car. But had I done something like that, I'd have been terribly remorseful, and in quite a hurry to say I didn't mean to do it. ("The gun went off!" "The car went into gear!" "I would never have done that to my friend!") What would be surprising would be if we didn't hear these arguments.

I know it sounds deeply cynical to assert that teen criminals and news reporters might have overlapping interests.

But reading about how the "gun went off" in case after case has made me cynical.


I guess it's easier to say the "gun went off" than to say "suspect X fired the gun."

(For starters, there's no need to insert the word "allegedly.")

ADDITIONAL NOTE: Readers please bear in mind that the suspects I've mentioned are only alleged [a word I hate, btw] to be suspects, and for discussion purposes I am treating the news reports of these incidents not as true, but as hypothetical examples.

The problem with allegations is that what is alleged is only allegedly alleged. (That's because "words are not truth!") Which leads to cycles of allegations. By allegators!

MORE: It also occurs to me the constant, irrational insistence on (and seeming preoccupation with) the "innocence" of teen shooters might tend to negate the right of self defense. Glenn Reynolds has at least two good recent posts on the subject, and I couldn't agree more that self defense is not murder.

Not even against [allegedly] innocent criminals.

posted by Eric on 09.09.06 at 09:14 AM


How about taking a pledge to be a better parent? Not leaving them unattended and unsupervised? I'll make that pledge here and now. Having grown up in a household with firearms I was taught at a early age that they were "hands-off", regardless. No exceptions. Your point about the car is very well taken. I think it goes without saying -or should anyway- that more teens are killed as a result of drunk driving than by guns.

bryan   ·  September 9, 2006 12:48 PM

I've heard of Russian troops in the Balkans playing "Russian Roul-ette" (at least the Russian part can't be challenged in this case!) with their AK-74s.

Evidently one plays it by not seating the magazine, all the way, pulling the charging handle a few times very rapidly, and squeezing the trigger.

Needless to say, this is crazy-go-nuts.

I'm told (again, all hearsay, so this could all be fiction) that this occasionally, but not usually, results in a dead Russian, when the magazine was seated a little too well and a round actually gets chambered. But there's no appeal to a drunk thrill-seeker if it's not dangerous, is there?

Sigivald   ·  September 11, 2006 3:01 PM

(Roul-ette typed as it was and is here to prevent spam-filtering, of course.)

Sigivald   ·  September 11, 2006 3:02 PM

Grogan is a moron, plain and simple.

Cerberus   ·  September 13, 2006 7:04 PM

I absolutely disagree with Grogan on the gun issue. But the guy has written a brilliant bestselling book.

(Would that I could be so moronic.)

Eric Scheie   ·  September 14, 2006 7:34 AM

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