When an NRA safety instructor accidentally shoots a student in one of his classes, is it a teachable moment about guns in America?
I am referring to an incident reported in the Orlando Sentinel in which a person attending a National Rifle Association class for applicants for concealed carry licenses was shot when his instructor's gun accidentally discharged during the class. The bullet penetrated a table before hitting the victim, who fortunately recovered from his wound.
I think it's safe to say that the NRA instructor in this case is unlikely to appear in future "I'm the NRA" promotional ads.
Here we have an individual, who the NRA itself has decided is such an expert in safe gun handling that he can teach a class in it, nevertheless accidentally discharging his weapon in a public place and wounding an innocent person. If this can happen to the instructor, what can we expect from his students, who presumably will be carrying their concealed guns on the streets?
This is hardly the first time that a highly trained gun user has accidentally shot someone. In fact the Sentinel article referred to another incident in Orlando a few years ago, in which a DEA agent shot himself in the thigh with a .40 caliber Glock pistol while talking to schoolchildren about the importance of staying away from guns. This bizarre shooting actually was captured on video. The image of all those kids in that room is chilling.
What lessons can be learned from these two disturbing incidents?
First, because of the nature of guns, accidental shootings remain a constant threat. Yes, individuals can be trained to be extremely careful around guns and most gun owners no doubt regard themselves as very safety conscious. But human beings are prone to mistakes - they can be clumsy, or distracted, or rushed, for example - and guns are sufficiently complicated mechanisms that even the slightest mistake can result in tragedy.
This is not true of other widely available products used as weapons. As the late columnist and humorist Molly Ivins once observed, "People are seldom killed while cleaning their knives." In fact, the great paradox of gun design is that guns are complicated enough to invite accidents by adults, yet simple enough to be fired by a child.
The NRA is fond of pointing to data suggesting that the rate of accidental shootings has been declining, but this is largely due to the decline in hunting, as well as the falling percentage of American households with guns, from 54% in 1977 to 33% in 2009. Even so, between 1965 and 2006, over 64,000 Americans died in unintentional shootings, more Americans than were killed in battle during those decades. For every person killed in such shootings, about thirteen are seriously wounded. The collection of accidental shootings found here makes a sobering statement.
The constant risk of an accidental shooting is not confined to the gun owner, those in his household, and those who may visit his household. Given the campaign of the "gun rights" ideologues to make it easier to carry guns in public, it is increasingly a threat to all of us. Most states that have made it easier to carry concealed weapons have no serious safety training requirements (and some states, like Arizona, have no requirement of even a license to carry a concealed weapon).
And now we have the spectacle of gun extremists carrying their handguns openly in places like Starbucks. In most states, there is no license or safety training requirement of any kind to engage in such "open carry". Apart from the growing evidence that we are allowing very dangerous people to legally carry guns in public (at least 173 homicides by concealed carry license holders since May, 2007, including 16 mass shootings), there is the less visible, but more constant threat of tragedy from a law-abiding, well-intentioned gun owner who may simply make a mistake with a gun on the street, in a coffee shop or in a public park.
When it comes to cars, we tolerate the risk of accidents because we regard automobile transportation as essential to our daily lives (though, unlike guns, we have extensive safety regulations on cars and drivers to reduce the risk of death and injury). We are told that we must similarly tolerate the risk of gun accidents because of the overriding protective benefit of guns in enabling self-defense against criminal attack.
But as to guns in the home, we know that for every time they are used in a self-defense shooting, there are four unintentional shootings (as well as seven criminal assaults and eleven attempted or completed suicides). For those who carry guns in public, the benefits are demonstrably not worth the risk. A recent study shows that individuals in actual possession of a gun are over four times more likely to be shot in an assault than persons not in possession of a gun. The research also reveals no evidence that making it easier for people to carry concealed guns reduces crime; indeed, its effect has been to increase aggravated assault.
So, yes, the accidental shooting by the NRA safety instructor provides a teachable moment. It teaches us this: the gun in the home, or in a public place, owned and carried even by a law-abiding and well-trained adult, presents a persistent risk of death and injury to the innocent. That risk is far greater than the often-claimed protective benefits of guns.
For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009)
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