If You Shoot First and Ask Questions Later, You Should Go To Jail

It happened yet again: a trigger-happy homeowner hears something go bump in the night, pulls the trigger of a gun, and an innocent victim dies. This time it was a mother gunning down and killing her own daughter:

A woman in St. Cloud, Florida, woke up just before midnight Tuesday and fired a shot at a person she thought had broken into her home.

But the person wasn’t an intruder; it was her 27-year-old daughter. The woman fired one round, but police didn’t say where the bullet hit the daughter. She died at a hospital. The shooting appears to be accidental, police said. An investigation is ongoing.

The only problem with that story is the use of the word “accident.” Such shootings–and they occur all too frequently in America–are never accidents. They are not tragedies. They are negligent homicides at best, and 2nd-degree murders at worst.

The number of home invasion robberies that lead to physical harm for the victim is low–particularly in the sorts of neighborhoods in which “defensive gun use” tends to take place. There is very small chance that whatever is going bump in the night actually means you and your loved ones harm.

Most of the time that bump in the night isn’t even human, and doesn’t need you to pull out your gun.

Most of the time a human is involved, there’s an innocent explanation–whether it be someone who got lost, an intoxicated person who can’t find their proper way home, a neighborhood kid playing a prank, a teenager’s romantic partner sneaking into a bedroom, etc. Twice in my life I’ve encountered a current or would-be home invader, and twice resolved it without violence because both men were under the influence of drugs and mistook my home for that of a friend or associate. I would have had every right to use a gun and fire on them, but that would have made me a reckless killer, not a responsible gun owner.

Even when there really is a criminal situation, the vast majority of the time it’s a petty thief looking to boost some electronics or jewelry to make a quick sale. They just want their next fix or meal ticket, and they’re not looking to up the ante on possible jail time by hurting you. Hurting you generally gains them nothing. Which means that common thieves can usually be scared off simply by shouting and alerting them to your presence.

There is almost never an excuse to fire a gun at an intruder without trying to talk to them and assess the situation first and at least try to scare them off. The notion that an intruder might have a gun which they might use on you first unless you have the element of surprise is essentially Hollywood fantasy. When Oskar Pistorius tried to defend himself from murder charges by suggesting he thought he was shooting behind a door at a potential burglar, the answer shouldn’t have been so much to contest his intent as to state that he’s murderer regardless of his intent. No one should ever fire a gun in a domestic situation without having any idea what they’re firing at.

If you shoot first and ask questions later, you should go to jail. It’s not an accident. It’s a crime.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.