Just because someone had no intention of hurting another doesn’t necessarily excuse legal culpability. People can get arrested in car accidents where there’s injury or death, even when alcohol isn’t involved. Injuries or deaths in industrial accidents can result in big fines and civil suits, although rarely time behind bars.
Forty or 50 times each day — 14,000 to 19,000 times a year — someone in this country is shot and wounded accidentally. In one year — 2010 — more than 600 people died in accidental shootings, and that does not include suicides.
A New York Times report last year uncovered an undercount of children’s deaths from accidental shootings, in part because how those deaths are reported and classified varies from state to state.
What happens after all these deaths, however, is apparently even more variable. There don’t seem to be solid, consistent numbers from states or nationwide on when and why people are charged after accidental shootings — and there should be.
One reason (which can be a sound one) for the inconsistencies is that prosecutorial discretion is at work, and when a family member is killed, law enforcement may be understandably reluctant to add to a family’s suffering with any charges, at least not right away. In Boerne, Texas, where last week a 2-year-old took a loaded gun out of the console of his parents’ Jeep while they were moving boxes and shot and killed himself, a police lieutenant said, “We want to give them time to grieve and make the necessary arrangements, and then after that we can talk to them.”
A dead child, a dead parent, a dead spouse is probably punishment enough — a lifetime sentence, in its own way.