Some Things Are Beyond Punishment

Punishing parents whose kids have gun accidents will not promote gun safety

Justin Peters, who runs Slate's crime blog, has been on a crusade against people who leave guns where kids can find them. I am all for promoting gun safety, but Peters takes it a bit farther: he wants family members punished if their kids get their hands on a gun and shoot someone. Even he, however, is taken aback at the news that Louisiana is preparing to try a woman for murder because her child found a gun and shot herself.

I’m glad Smith is being held accountable for her daughter’s death. Parents who allow guns into their homes need to bear responsibility for what their children do with those guns. While initial reports made it seem like the gun belonged to Smith, it now appears that the gun may have belonged to a family friend who was temporarily storing it at Smith’s house. Either way, it doesn’t matter. Smith allowed the gun into her house. She’s responsible for what happened with it.

But “bearing responsibility” doesn’t mean “lock her up and throw away the key.”

Here I must disagree. I don't see that any purpose is served by punishing this woman. She has already had the worst possible thing happen to her. In what sense can the government "hold her accountable" in any way that is not dwarfed by her own conscience, and memory?

When it comes to punishment, we should embrace a concept that has gotten lost in American justice in recent decades: enough. Punishment should be enough to deter, to punish, and in the case of incorrigibles, to rehabilitate. But beyond that point, there's no reason to lard on extra damage. Overpunishment is both costly and cruel.

How much added deterrence do we get from telling parents that if their kid finds a gun and shoots themselves (or a sibling), that parent will go to jail? Let me submit that the answer is "virtually none". Oh, sure, there are a handful of sociopathic, mentally ill, or drug addicted parents who don't care if their kid gets shot, but we're mostly describing people sufficiently addled that very little will deter them from anything. All the rest of the parents are internally sobbing with anguish at the mere passing thought that something could happen to their darling child.

How about justice? Again, a parent whose child is dead is already suffering the worst punishment we can imagine--at least, that we are willing to inflict. Maybe it would be worse if we flayed and vivisected them then had their bodies torn apart by wild animals, but we're not going to do that. Short of that, we don't need to inflict suffering. Their child's death has already done that.

How about incapacitating them? A parent who has lost one child to a mishandled gun seems pretty unlikely to reoffend. But if they keep leaving guns around, then it seems much simpler to take the kids out of the home, not the parent.

But if we are going to punish a parent whose lax gun storage has resulted in a child's death, then it seems obvious to me that we should punish them severely. What's the point of tacking on some trifling symbolic punishment to their deep anguish? "Your irresponsibility caused the death of your child. We'll teach you not to do that again: six months in the county jail!" This doesn't send the message that "We're taking this seriously"--rather, the contrast with the parent's deep grief trivializes the gravity of what happened.

A parent who has lost a child is always, in some sense, in the prison of their grief . . . and if the child died because of something they did, they're not getting early parole. Nonetheless, these accidents continue to occur. I don't want to say that there's nothing we can do, because for one thing, we should be much more aggressively educating about gun safety. But while there is something we can do, sending the parents to prison is not that thing.