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What the hell is going on with the recent spate of so-called accidental shootings? The shootings are being called accidental because the victims did something everyone alive has done at least once, and probably more than once: they went to the wrong house or approached the wrong car by accident.
In Kansas City, Ralph Yarl, a 16 year old Black teenager, had been sent to pick up his siblings and went to the wrong address by mistake. When he rang the doorbell, 84 year old Andrew Lester answered the door and shot the teenager twice with a .32 caliber revolver – in the head and in the arm. Lester has been arrested and charged with two felonies that could put him behind bars for life. Lester told the police he was “scared to death” because of the boy’s size and age. Yarl is five feet eight inches tall, weighs 140 pounds, is 16 years old, and was unarmed. He has been discharged from the hospital and is undergoing a long recovery at home.
Twenty-year-old Kaylin Gillis was shot dead last Saturday outside Salem, New York, when the car she was riding in turned down the wrong driveway while trying to find the location of a party. Sixty-four year old Kevin Monahan fired two shots through the rear window of the car in which Gillis was riding in the front passenger seat. The driver, realizing they were at the wrong address, had turned the car around and was leaving the property following another car in the group and a man on a motorcycle. The vehicles were traveling together and mistook Monahan’s driveway for the one they were looking for because there was no cell service in the very rural area, and their GPS wasn’t working. Gillis was in the last car that turned around and was heading down the driveway.
On Tuesday in Austin, Texas, Pedro Tello Rodriguez Jr., 25, shot two teenage cheerleaders in the parking lot of a H-E-B supermarket when one of them mistakenly got into his car thinking it was her own. Realizing her mistake, the cheerleader, Heather Roth, got out of the car and began apologizing when Rodriguez, seated in the passenger seat, got out of the car, pulled a 9 mm pistol and began shooting. He hit a cheerleader in the other car, Payton Washington, and grazed Roth. The two women drove from the scene and were two miles away when they realized Washington was seriously wounded by two bullets fired by the gunman.
Rodriguez has been arrested and was charged with deadly conduct with a firearm. He is being held on $500,000 bail. Roth was treated at the scene for her minor injury. Washington, who was born with only one lung, was airlifted to a hospital and is recovering from damage to her pancreas and diaphragm. Her spleen, pierced by one of the bullets, was removed. She is expected to make a full recovery.
Two of these shootings involve victims who mistakenly or accidentally went to the wrong address; in the third, the victim accidentally got into the wrong car in a large supermarket parking lot where people forget exactly where they parked their cars every day. Although in all three incidents mistakes were made by the victims, the responsible parties are the people who owned the firearms, because the active, intentional act was aiming the gun at the victims and pulling the trigger.
This is what I mean when I say there are no accidental shootings: Any discharge of a firearm is preceded by at least five intentional acts. First, the shooter had to buy the gun. Second, the shooter had to load the gun. Third, the shooter had to either be carrying the gun, as the shooter in the automobile was, or he had to have the gun nearby or on his person at his residence, as in the other two cases. Fourth, the shooter had to aim the gun at the victim. Fifth, the shooter had to discharge the gun by pulling the trigger.
The victims in these cases may have accidentally been somewhere they shouldn’t have been, but all three shooters did not discharge their firearms accidentally at all.
They don’t tell gun buyers this at gun stores, but owning a firearm comes with certain grave responsibilities. A gun must be stored safely. If it’s carried by a person, or accessed at someone’s home, it must be used safely. In all of these incidents, the shooters are readying a defense that they felt threatened or were “standing their ground” to defend themselves. It’s bullshit. The shooter in Kansas City was not in any danger from the unarmed 16 year old who rang his doorbell. The shooter in New York fired through the back window of a car as it was driving away and not presenting any threat at all. The shooter in Texas was faced by an unarmed teenage girl in a cheerleading uniform, a threat in exactly nobody’s book.
Probably the greatest problem with a firearm is that by its nature, it contains potential energy which depends on the relative positions of parts of the system to which it is attached or with which it is involved. A bow has potential energy only when its string is pulled back. A ball has potential energy only if it is lifted from the ground and becomes subject to gravity.
You could make a case that a firearm has potential energy only when it is cocked, but in the case of many firearms, cocking the weapon is not necessary or is automatic. A double-action revolver is cocked when the trigger is pulled. A semiautomatic pistol with a round in the chamber fires when the trigger is pulled and cocks itself for the next shot. But the real potential energy is the bullet itself, which stores its energy in the form of gunpowder in the shell casing of every bullet in its magazine or clip.
So, even a gun just sitting on a shelf, or in the case of the Texas shooting, on the center console of the car, contains potential energy and the capacity to kill.
That’s why the military treats firearms as if they are loaded and ready to fire at all times, even if they are stored unloaded under lock and key in an arms room. As a second lieutenant, I was weapons officer in an Infantry company at Fort Carson, Colorado. The Army required me to inspect the arms room every day to ensure that every weapon assigned to that company, and all of the ammunition, was secure. I had to sign what amounted to an affidavit attesting to that fact every day. The punishment for lying on that affidavit was a year in jail. The punishment for unintentional manslaughter was only six months. That’s how seriously the Army takes its firearms.
Individual soldiers who are issued a firearm to be used on a firing range, during a training exercise, or in combat, are responsible for everything that happens to that weapon when it is in their possession. For soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, that meant having their weapons with them at all times, including sleeping with an M-16 or M-4 or Beretta 9 mm by their sides. As a cadet, I was excited the first day I was issued my first rifle, which in those days was an M-14. By the end of that day, that M-14 was the biggest pain in the ass I had ever had.
I was responsible for everything about that rifle: keeping it clean, storing it safely, using it safely, ensuring it wasn’t lost or stolen. In the Army, losing your weapon is a serious offense, punishable by special court martial and reduction in rank and pay, or in the case of officers, possible expulsion from the service. Mis-firing your weapon is just as serious, with similar punishments. Accidentally firing your weapon and hitting someone could get you sent to Fort Leavenworth Disciplinary Barracks.
Getting back to the three recent incidents where innocent victims were shot by gun-owners, the question is, what is the connective tissue between them?
One is the gun itself. Nobody would have been shot if the two homeowners and the guy who owned the car did not have guns either on their persons or nearby.
Two is the mistake made by the innocent victim, either going to the wrong address or opening the door of the wrong car.
Three was the improper conclusion by the gun owner that they were being confronted by a threat when no threat was present.
Four was the gun owner aiming and discharging his weapon.
There is one overarching thing that connects all three incidents: fear on the part of the gun owners. All three of them were afraid enough that they went out and bought their guns and ammunition and either carried their weapons or had them available for use nearby. It is possible to be rationally fearful: if someone assaults you with a deadly weapon, that is sufficient cause to be afraid. But it’s also possible to be irrationally fearful. Prejudice can cause irrational fear, so can what we might call politically-driven paranoia. If you watch Fox News and believe the lie that the crime rate is going through the roof when it actually isn’t, you can make yourself so irrationally afraid, you’ll think a random knock on a door or a car in your driveway you don’t recognize is a threat.
Overcoming fear is one of the things the Army is very good at teaching. They teach it so that soldiers don’t fire their weapons at “friendlies” when they mistake them for the enemy. Civilians don’t get training in overcoming fear at the gun stores where they buy their military-grade firearms such as AR-15 semiautomatic rifles or semiautomatic pistols made by Beretta, Sig Sauer, and other manufacturers. Come to think of it, there is no training required at all for gun buyers.
But here’s the thing: You don’t have to overcome fear if you don’t own a firearm. All you have to do is lock your doors and windows and call 911. Until the day comes when there are more people willing to do just that, rather than buying one of the 400 million guns already in private hands in this country, we’re going to continue to have shootings of innocent victims by gun-owners who don’t know what the hell they’re doing when they pick up a firearm. Such a thing wouldn’t happen if a gun-owner hadn’t gone out and bought a deadly weapon on purpose and had it lying around to be picked up by a child or pointed at a stranger.
Klint Ludwig, the grandson of Andrew Lester, the man who shot 16-year-old Ralph Yarl in Kansas City last week, told CNN today that he wasn’t surprised that his grandfather had shot the teenager. “The warning signs were there. I wasn’t shocked when I heard the news. I believe he held – holds – racist tendencies and beliefs. His actions are his responsibility, and falling into the fear and paranoia stoked by the 24-hour news cycle and wild conspiracies did not help his mental state,” Ludwig said.
Yarl is an honor student at his high school in Kansas City and had approached Lester’s home by mistake, seeking to pick up his brothers from a play date.
Yesterday, Robert Louis Singletary, 24, shot a 6-year-old girl and her parents when a basketball neighborhood children were playing with in the street rolled into his yard. The father was shot in the back by Singletary and is in serious condition. The child was hit in the cheek by bullet fragments. The mother was grazed by a bullet. The mother’s and daughter’s wounds have been stitched up and they have been released from the hospital.
"He looked at my husband and my daughter and told them, 'I'm going to kill you,'" the mother told CNN. Singletary was out on bond for an assault on his girlfriend in December. After the shooting, he fled to Florida. He turned himself into a police department near Tampa, where he was arrested and is awaiting extradition back to North Carolina.
As ABC News reported last evening, “The North Carolina shooting follows a string of similar incidents where seemingly ordinary mistakes have led to serious consequences involving firearms.”
“Involving firearms?” If no guns had been present at the time of the incidents, nobody would have been shot, no blood would have been shed, and most probably, nobody would have been arrested.
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.