We have been told that the only way to stop a “bad guy” with a gun is a “good guy” with a gun. But what if it’s neither?

What if the person behind the gun is a 4-year-old boy, strong enough to pull the trigger but far too young to understand the potenial consequences?

Those are the questions that day care providers in Hallowell had to answer late last year when a preschooler showed up with a loaded handgun in his backpack.

Prosecutors are looking into whether the gun’s owner committed a crime by leaving the firearm in a place where the boy could get his hands on it. On its face, they would seem to have a strong case. The child’s life was in danger, as were the lives of the children and care providers he encountered that day.

But the incident also points to a neglected aspect of the gun violence debate: the social cost of having such a huge number of guns, multiplying the unintentional damage they can cause.

The day after this story broke, an 11-year-old in New Jersey shot his 12-year-old friend in the face. On Wednesday, a 2-year-old boy in Texas died after accidentally shooting himself in the head. On Tuesday, a 3-year-old accidentally shot himself to death in Florida after finding his uncle’s gun. Also on Tuesday, a 5-year-old in Texas shot his 7-year-old brother.

This all comes during the week after a 13-year-old shot his 6-year-old sister in Florida and a 5-year-old boy in Kentucky shot his 2-year-old sister to death. All of these shootings are believed to have been accidents.

Too much of the gun violence debate has focused on criminals with guns or mass killers and the need for armed citizens to defend themselves.

But often there is no “bad guy.” Of the 31,500 gun deaths in 2010, 19,000 were suicides. There are many ways to kill yourself, but few are as effective or subject to impulse as pulling the trigger of a gun.

Many gun injuries (and about 600 deaths in 2010) are unintentional acts, whether purely accidental, like those by the very young shooters, or the result of negligent or reckless behavior.

Every accident can’t be avoided, but it’s reasonable to expect — and not a violation of anyone’s Second Amendment rights — that guns are not so easy to access that even a little child can get his hands on one.

The National Rifle Association should acknowlege that it’s not always the bad guy you need protection from. Sometimes it’s irresponsible “good guys” who cause the most trouble.


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