Reacting To Shooting Deaths

May 11th, 2013

Often, politicians attempt to seize the moment after shooting deaths to enact various forms of gun control legislation. One of the essential elements in this legislative strategy is to focus heavily on the tragic deaths–especially those of children.

However, a recent event in Kentucky, in which a five-year old shot and killed his two-year old sister, has not ginned up a similar reaction, at least in the town of Burkseville. The New York Times took note:

The death has convulsed this rural community of 1,800 in south-central Kentucky, where everyone seems to know the extended Sparks family, which is now riven by grief. But as mourners gathered for Caroline’s funeral on Saturday, there were equally strong emotions directed at the outside world, which has been quick to pass judgment on the parents and a way of life in which many see nothing unusual about introducing children to firearms while they are still in kindergarten.

The shooting came after the recent failure in Washington of gun control legislation inspired by the shootings in Newtown, Conn., which exposed a bitter divide on guns. But Burkesville seemed to want no part of being a symbol in a national debate. “I think it’s nobody else’s business but our town’s,” said a woman leaving a store, who like many people here declined to be interviewed. A woman who answered the phone at the office of John A. Phelps Jr., the chief executive of Cumberland County, whose seat is Burkesville, said, “No, I’m sorry — no more statements,” and hung up.

Similar tragedies elsewhere were viewed as chapters in an evolving gun-control debate:

The shooting here, in a region of farms and timber mills, followed a spate of other gun accidents around the country involving young children. They included a 4-year-old boy who accidentally killed the wife of a sheriff’s deputy at a cookout near Nashville, and a 6-year-old boy who was fatally shot with a .22-caliber rifle by a 4-year-old playmate in Toms River, N.J.

Recently in Camden, an 11-year old accidentally shot a 12-year old, and the article notes that there is a “spree of underage shootings”:

An 11-year-old boy shot a 12-year-old child in the face in Camden, New Jersey on Friday in what authorities are describing as an accident. The child is being treated an area hospital and is expected to survive.

“We have the 11-year-old and the 11-year-old’s parents with us, they are fully cooperative,” Chief Scott Thomson of the Camden County Regional Police said, according to WPVI-TV. “We’re trying to get to the bottom of what happened.”

The bullet appeared to wound the 12-year-old child in the nasal area but avoided hitting the brain. A 19-year-old relative of the child was present at the time of the incident, but authorities are still investigating how they obtained the weapon.

The news caps off a spree of underage shootings this week: a 2-year-old boy died Wednesday after accidentally shooting himself in the head in the Texas town of Corsicana, a 3-year-old boy in Tampa, Florida fatally shot himself with his uncle’s gun on Tuesday, a 5-year-old boyshot his 7-year-old brother in Houston, Texas on Tuesday and a 13-year-old shot his 6-year-old sister in Florida on Monday.

It is fascinating to study differing reactions, and utilzations, of these tragedies, to advance legislative change.

Recently Dan Kahan weighed in on this topic at his Cultural Cognition blog. Kahan raises the jarring (to some) point that more children die in swimming pool accidents than by gun deaths.

But what I do like to do — because it is an instance of the sort of thing I study — is think about why accidental shootings of young children (a) get so much media coverage relative to the other things that kill children; and (b) are—or, more likely, are thought—to be potent occasions for drawing public attention to the need for greater regulation of firearms.

Consider guns vs. (what else?!) swimming pools (if the comparison is trite, don’t blame me; blame the dynamics that make people keep resisting what the comparison illustrates about cultural and cognition).

  • Typically there are < 1,000 (more like 600-800) accidental gun homicides in US per yr. About 30 of those are children age 5 or under.

Kahan notes that the accidental shootings of children do not add anything to the movement in favor of gun contorl.

But it’s obvious, to anyone who reflects on the matter if not to those who don’t, that the incidence of the accidental shootings of children adds zeroweight to the arguments that can be made in support of those policies.

One of these is the “availability effect,” which refers to the tendency of people to overestimate the incidence of risks involving highly salient or emotionally gripping events relative to less salient, less sensational ones.  We might explain why people seem so much more concerned about the risk of an accidental shooting of a child than the accidental drowning of one.

But the explanation is not satisfying because it begs the question of what accounts for theselective salience of various risks—what makes some but not others gripping enough to get our attention, or to get the attention of those who make a living showing us attention-grabbing things?  Cultural cognition theory says the cultural congeniality of seeing instances of harm that gratify one’s cultural predispositions.

The salience, or “availability” of these tragic killings of children brings much attention to these shootings.

Update: Think Progress tracks 5 children who were shot by children before mother’s day.