Last week, we sent an email about the important lessons we’ve learned when lawyers have ended up in the classes.
This week we’re going to talk about tragic accidents involving firearms.
Last week a Florida sheriff’s deputy accidentally killed his best friend while playing with his gun. According to an affidavit, Deputy Aaron Larson pointed his firearm at his roommate and pulled the trigger. The gun did not fire but Larson apparently then pulled the slide back and pointed the gun back at his roommate and again pulled the trigger. This time the gun did fire, and 23 year old Austin Walsh was killed.
If gun owners rely only on a set of rules for safety but do not first and foremost respect the risk of handling the firearm, at some point the rules may very well fail to keep the user from doing something they shouldn’t.
Walsh and Larson were best friends and now two lives are essentially over. Larson is facing manslaughter charges as well as the end of his career and most importantly, the psychological weight of being responsible for the death of his best friend. Walsh’s life was over in an instant.
The obvious reaction to a story like this is disbelief and an incredulous response of “this is why you follow the rules!”. But I’ve seen enough examples of negligence around guns to know that we can’t count on rules to keep people from having the wrong mindset about firearm safety. It’s no secret that this young deputy made a very stupid and life changing decision to treat this gun as a toy. But there are other examples of deaths caused by firearm accidents that are much less boneheaded than this one, and the end result is the same. People lose their lives when people take safety for granted.
On November 20th, an 11 year old boy in Wisconsin was accidentally killed by his uncle in a hunting accident. As the boy’s uncle was attempting to unload his rifle while it was laying in the truck, the gun fired and the bullet struck the 11 year old in the chest, killing him.
Both of these accidents have something very important in common. In both stories, the person with their hand on the gun failed to maintain the proper mindset when in control of a gun. I’m fairly certain that both of these men knew “the rules”. But knowing the rules is not going to guarantee that you have the mindset necessary to respect the risk of handling a firearm.
Guns are dangerous by their very design. They have the capacity to cause enormous damage with very little effort. If gun owners rely only on a set of rules for safety but do not first and foremost respect the risk of handling the firearm, at some point the rules may very well fail to keep the user from doing something they shouldn’t. Cultivating the mindset of acknowledging the serious risks of guns is intended to not allow a user to become complacent about safety.
Every action you take with the firearm should be guided by an understanding of the risk of what you are doing, and what the benefits are. The benefits should always clearly outweigh the risks. Is there a benefit to hunting? Of course there are lots of benefits. But is there a benefit to attempting to unload your hunting rifle while having it pointed at your 11 year old nephew? The life changing risk was ignored.
I don’t even need to analyze the risks and benefits of playing with a gun and pointing it at your best friend’s head. It’s easy to understand the stupidity of that action. But there are plenty of accidents with firearms that happen in much less stark circumstances. An Ohio firearms instructor who was accidentally shot by a student in the classroom in 2016. A Houston gunsmith who killed a customer when he accidentally fired a rifle he was working on in 2017. The LA police officer who accidentally killed a 14 year old girl in a department store changing room while the officer was shooting at a violent criminal who had been assaulting multiple people with a hammer.
Guns are inherently risky. We must never assume that they are not. We as a community have a responsibility to cultivate a mindset for gun ownership and gun handling that keeps that reality front of mind for everyone. This is how we address safety in all of our classes and more importantly, it’s how we think about safety in every action we take with our firearms.