In the United States, there are about 4 million 8-year-old children. To the extent that statistical averages hold true, around 640 of them will die this year. The largest single cause is motor vehicle accidents, killing a quarter. Cancer will kill another sixth, heart disease around fifteen percent, drowning will kill four percent, fires will kill about the same, and so it goes. Fewer than one percent will die of accidental discharge of firearms, about the same as inadvertently poison themselves with household cleaners. This year, one of them was named Christopher Bizilj, and he lived in Massachusetts. He was killed at a firearms expo this week when he was allowed to fire a demonstration Micro Uzi. The recoil caused him to lose control of the gun as it was firing; one of the bullets killed him. It is a hideous tragedy of unimaginable horror.
Conversely, irrationality in the face of horror has been used to justify everything from medieval pogroms to warrantless wiretaps. It is a source of new horrors all its own, and it’s precisely the thing scientists should strive to avoid. And it’s precisely the thing our own Greg Laden doesn’t avoid:
Ah, Mr. Gun-Nut Moron, it is obvious why this happened. Because your gun-loving attitude, which we presume you passed on to your child, made it happen. Why just the other day, I think I heard you saying “you can pry my guns out of my cold dead hands.” I wonder if you had to pry this gun out of the cold dead hands of your child?
Cost of a bullet: 9 cents. Cost of your son’s life: The price you pay for your politics.
I could say the same thing with equal statistical justification about the drain cleaner under your sink or the step ladder in your closet. I could say the same thing with five times the statistical justification about your swimming pool simply by raw numbers of deaths. But no one proposes banning those things because they don’t look scary.
Like drain cleaner, chain saws, cars, and almost every other dangerous product, guns have important uses. Self-defense, recreation, hunting (though clearly not with an Uzi), and protection against tyranny, among others. And this serves not to excuse the father, but to further indict him. He should no more have let the child shoot the gun than he should let the child use a chain saw. Even the most vague cursory knowledge of firearms would make it obvious that a small machine gun is in fact one of the most difficult firearms to handle due to its vicious recoil and continuous fire. Were I the district attorney, I’d prosecute the father and possibly the range supervisor for negligent homicide. There is no excuse.
Neither is there an excuse to assault a fundamental freedom because of tragedy resulting from criminal negligence. It’s precisely the same reaction that gave us every civil liberties problem Greg very justifiably loathes about the Bush administration. May we be consistent in our desire to never give up freedom for security.
Notes: Machine gun ownership is very heavily restricted in the US already. Purchase requires a very rigorous background check, licensing, fingerprints, photos, and a tremendous amount of money. Crime with illegal machine guns is very rare; crime with legally owned machine guns is essentially nonexistent. They are simply not weapons which are well suited for most crime by virtue of their size, expense, and difficulty of effective use. The gun control debate is thus mostly fought over much more mundane one-shot-per-trigger-pull pistols, and deaths due to homicide rather than accidents. [That's obviously a much more interesting subject, but not one I'm going to treat in this post or the comments. I'll save it for later. You may debate each other in the comments if you wish, but keep it rational, cited, and civil.]
By basic physics and even cursory understanding of guns, the Micro Uzi is one of the most difficult guns to handle. Small size means less mass, and correspondingly greater recoil for a given shot. The Micro Uzi itself has a greater than average rate of fire, compounding the difficulty. An 8-year-old should still be on the air rifle stage of learning about guns, and I reiterate my opinion that prosecution is in order just as I would for a father who let his kid play with a circular saw.