On Friday an 8-year-old Louisiana boy shot his grandmother in the back of the head while she was watching television—and police say he did it intentionally. (The woman died. Since state law prohibits the prosecution of young children, the boy will not face charges.) The boy had reportedly been playing the video game Grand Theft Auto IV right before the shooting, and, unsurprisingly, that angle has dominated the coverage thus far. And yet fewer people seem to be talking about how and why this 8-year-old boy was so easily able to access the gun in the first place.
I am not a fan of the argument that violent video games are responsible for the real-life violence committed by people like this child in Louisiana and Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza. The research that links real and virtual violence isinconclusive and unconvincing. To me, the “blame video games” argument usually seems like a feint, trotted out in times of tragedy to distract attention from more relevant issues.
And the most relevant issue in this Louisiana case is the gun. The details of how the 8-year-old got access to a firearm are as of yet unclear. We know the gun belonged to the boy’s grandmother, who was somewhere between 87 and 90 years old. We can safely assume that the gun was not on the grandmother’s person before she was shot. We can also probably assume it wasn’t locked away in a cabinet or gun safe.
If it’s true that this boy deliberately killed his grandmother, then this doesn’t count as one of the unintentional shootings I write about so often. And yet the story still has much in common with those others, insofar as it involves a child firing a gun that he would not have been able to access if the appropriate precautions had been taken. These common-sense rules ought to be memorized and understood by every child-rearing gun owner in America. If your gun is loaded, then keep that gun on your person or within reach at all times. If your gun isn’t within reach, then it ought to be unloaded and stored in a gun safe. Only allow a child to use a weapon under direct supervision.
These shouldn’t be controversial points. No matter how responsible or precocious some children might seem, they are still children—impulsive, inexperienced, and often unaware that actions have consequences. The CNN.com story about the shooting reports that the boy “truly doesn’t understand” the extent of what happened. Well, of course he doesn’t! He’s 8 years old! Eight-year-olds still believe in Santa Claus. Any adult who is raising or has raised 8-year-olds knows how spacy they can be, and, thus, should also know that terrible things could happen if an 8-year-old gets his hands on a loaded gun. And if, God forbid, those terrible things do happen, then a significant portion of the blame has to fall on the adult who left the gun loaded and unsecured in an 8-year-old’s presence.
I do understand why the video game angle has predominated in the reporting on this story. Grand Theft Auto IV is a super-violent game, and the fact that the boy was apparently playing it minutes before he killed his grandmother certainly seems to imply a causal connection. We can debate forever whether this shooting would have happened if the boy hadn’t had access to the game. But we can know with absolute certainty that it wouldn’t have happened if the boy hadn’t had access to the gun.
Justin Peters writes about crime for Slate.