An elderly year old home invasion victim suffered a painful and terrible experience at the hands of armed robbers. After the robbery, he very wisely chose to become a gun owner so that he would be able to defend himself in the future. Unfortunately, what appears to be negligence turned what should have been a safe and productive gun use lesson into another painful experience when the 80 year old man was shot in the hand by his own son. The newspaper reports refer to this as an “accidental” shooting, virtually suggesting that being unintentionally shot is just an ordinary part of being around guns. That is just not the case:
The home invasion robbery
Ralph Needs is an 80 year old man from Groveport, OH. He recently bought a new red Ford F-350 pickup truck, which he parked in his driveway. On September 20, 2009, he fell asleep in his bedroom while watching TV at about 8:30PM. He awoke shortly thereafter to find 2 home invaders standing over his bed. Apparently they saw the new pickup truck, and assumed that he would have lots of money and valuables for them to steal. For the next three hours, the home invaders pistol whipped, threatened, beat, and otherwise hurt Needs in an effort to make him give them money that he didn’t have. The robbers threatened to burn him with some sort of electric device, only to have the circuit breaker trip when they plugged it in to the outlet. After tormenting him and ransacking his house for hours, the robbers finally left in his new truck – taking his ATM card, computer, and other property along with them.
The negligent shooting that followed
Reasonably fearing fearing for his safety after the attack, Ralph Needs decided to learn about guns from his eldest son Steve. That gun lesson ended with Ralph Needs suffering what appears to be a completely preventable injury :
Four days later, Needs was shot in his right pinkie and thumb. His eldest son, Steve, was trying to teach Needs how to defend himself with a gun. As Steve loaded the 9 mm pistol, it went off. Because the shooting was accidental, no charge will be filed, York said.
The above text is a verbatim quote from one newspaper article discussing the home invasion and subsequent shooting. It also happens to be virtually identical to the many other newspapers stories reporting this incident. The problem is that this text suggests the gun just fired on its own while being loaded, and that such a shooting is an accident. Neither such propositions are accurate, in my humble opinion. Firstly, firearms are some of the most reliable mechanical devices in existence today. They are designed to reliably fire when the trigger is pulled, and above all else, to not fire unless the trigger is pulled. Barring an extremely unlikely and difficult to even imagine situation, guns just won’t fire unless the user pulls the trigger. Let me say it again: Guns don’t just “go off.” Secondly, if the basic rules of gun safety are followed, no one will be unintentionally shot even if the gun does magically go off on its own. That is because the 2nd rule of gun safety is to always point the gun in a safe direction.
Although the newspaper description of the facts are not as complete as would be nice, it appears that Ralph Needs was shot because his son pulled the trigger of a loaded gun while pointing that gun at his father. Such a shooting is not “accidental,” but is instead “negligent.” The difference between an accident and negligence is not just a matter of semantics. “Accidental” refers to an event that occurred despite the use of proper care and skill. Accidents are no one’s fault. “Negligent” refers to a failure to exercise the proper care and skill that a reasonable person would have exercised. A reasonable person does not pull the trigger on a loaded gun, while trying to load it. Nor does a reasonable person point a gun at someone while teaching them about that gun.
I say the above not to vilify Steve Needs, since I have no motive for doing so, and since I do not believe in personal attacks in the first place. Instead, my statements are made to debunk the utterly untrue idea that guns are somehow dangerous objects that will fire on their own. Sadly, that idea permeates the news media and the minds of many people who don’t own guns themselves. Speaking from personal experience, I have had a first time shooter ask me if I’ve ever shot myself by accident – as though such a shooting would be completely understandable. Having this myth out there not only deters would-be gun owners, but also seems to prevent negligent individuals from being properly held liable when they negligently shoot someone.
Guns just don’t go off on their own. When someone is unintentionally shot, it is almost certainly the fault of a person who carelessly pointed the gun at another person, then carelessly pulled the trigger. Perpetuating the idea that a gun just “went off” does a disservice to the tens of millions of non-negligent gun owners, the manufacturers who have spent centuries making firearms extremely safe, and the many people who would own a gun for self defense if not for their incorrect belief that guns are dangerous because they just “go off.” I would encourage anyone who still does not understand these points to read this article about the rules of gun safety, and this article about negligent shootings.
With respect to Mr. Needs, I hope that once he recovers he finds a gun owner who will safely teach him the basics of gun ownership for self defense. As many self defense examples show, armed senior citizens are in the best position possible to defend themselves against attack by violent criminals: This armed 85 year old woman held a home invader at gunpoint, and made him call the police on himself. This armed 93 year old man shot a home invader in self defense after the home invader began to attack him. This armed 70 year old woman held an intruder at gunpoint until the police arrived to arrest him. This armed 91 year old man used his handgun to fend off two home invader who had broken in and threatened his wheelchair-bound wife with their guns. This armed 84 year old man used his handgun to stop a criminal who repeatedly tried to enter his home through the front door, back door, and a window. This 82 year old man used his handgun to stop an armed robber who beat and shocked him with a stun gun, in his own home. Armed self defense works.
As a new lawyer, I'm sure you would agree that if that all these reported incidents of guns "just going off" were legitimate, the manufacturers would have been sued out of existence by now. You are correct, in modern gun designs it is physically impossible for the gun to just "go off" without activation of the trigger mechanism.
The facts speak for themselves. If he was hit by a bullet then he was breaking a cardinal rule of safe handling, as you say, point the gun in a safe direction only. That makes it highly suspect that he followed other rules, such as keeping his finger off the trigger.
I really wish the firearms industry would strike back at such irresponsible reporting. Technically its probably not slander or libel, the "victim" may even believe it "just went off," and the paper is simply reporting what was said. But a massive PR campaign is in order. Many people who might otherwise choose to own a firearm opt out based on the misinformation that guns sometimes "just go off."
As a side note, the story proves the argument that novices should stick with revolvers.
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