“District Attorney Jim Martin said in a statement that the suspect was with Perez and three other friends in the basement when Perez asked to see a shotgun,” washingtontimes.com reports. “Witnesses said he handed back the weapon to the teen, who had said it was unloaded, and the teen waved it and pointed it in the direction of the victim, and it discharged.” And so . . .

The Lehigh County [PA] district attorney’s office said Wednesday that the 16-year-old is charged in the April 8 shooting death of 17-year-old Chris Perez in Lower Macungie Township.

Is that right? Should people who mishandle firearms, death resulting, be charged with involuntary manslaughter?

53 Responses to Question of the Day: Should Police Charge Irresponsible Gun Owners Who Cause Death With Involuntary Manslaughter?

  1. What I’ve always asked is “why aren’t we?”
    And dont tell me its because the parent has suffered enough when their kid gets killed with the gun that was not locked away.

      • exactly this…

        if you want someone to be safe with a object, you have to teach them.

        knives are sharp, stoves are hot and dont stick forks into outlets. guns shoot bullets is another simple and teachable concept.

    • Agree. Also the same for owners that leave loaded firearms unattended for their little ones to take from the drawer and then shoot someone.

      • Do you mean “I hid it really, really well” isn’t a defense against prosecution? Good. We agree.
        The sticky part is: what level of security would a court or jury consider sufficient to be considered a defense when someone’s little darling wastes on of his pals with a parent’s gun? Frankly, I don’t have an answer except to say in my own defense – every gun I own is unloaded and locked away behind thick steel except the one attached to me at this very moment, no exceptions.

    • BLoving and Steve,

      I agree that parents are culpable if they fail to secure a firearm and a young child harms someone with that firearm. The key question is what constitutes “young”?

      Consider a 13 year-old child. No one secures steak knives in their silverware drawer or common household chemicals (poisons) from 13 year-old children. If a 13 year-old child uses a steak knife or poison to kill someone, should the parents go to prison for manslaughter because they failed to lock up the silverware drawer or kitchen cabinet with the chemicals? I say no. Neither should a parent of that same 13 year-old child go to prison if that child obtains a firearm and harms someone.

      Obviously, a parent is culpable if they allow a 5 year-old child to access a firearm and that child harms someone.

      At what point does culpability shift from the parent to the child? Of course it would vary somewhat from one child to the next. As a general rule, I would say that parents are no longer culpable for children misusing anything from about fourth grade and older. By fourth grade children are smart enough to know that they have to leave certain things alone, whether or not their parents are in sight.

      • You’re not wrong. Education is key and if we could mandate it, we would. By education, we mean of course proper safe handling of firearms as opposed to “see this? Don’t touch” .
        Like I once explained to a group of Cub Scouts: Firearms are a thing that exist in our world – like computers. They aren’t going to go away and sooner or later you will need to know what, and what not to do with one when you find it in front of you. The results of using either incorrectly are ugly.

  2. It should be treated the same as accidental death caused by mishandling an automobile. There is a lot of case law for that situation. It seems applicable to this situation, at least philosophically.

      • It can be, yes, if the parent “knew or should have known” that the child would take the car. It has been tried, civilly at least, and successfully, for injuries suffered as a result of the child’s negligent driving.

  3. Somebody chooses to point a firearm at another person and pull the trigger? Unless self defense is involved, a crime has been committed, Not too familiar with the various legal categories of homicide, but manslaughter seems appropriate in this case.

  4. Kind of an aside, but I once walked into a new pawn shop in town that had a massive “GUNS!” sign outside. Well, there weren’t many guns, but I asked the clerk if he had a Glock 26. He said “sure” and reach into a drawer and pulled one out. He handed it to me to check out. As I always do when I handle a gun (even my own that I am 99.99999% sure are unloaded), I dropped the magazine, which was fully loaded, and racked the slide and a live round came flying out. I looked at the clerk and said something to effect of him being a &$*#@&$ idiot and was so pissed that I proceeded to thumb all the rounds out of the magazine onto the floor. I then field stripped the pistol, dropped everything on the counter, picked up the recoil spring and flung it across the room (who knows where it landed). I tipped my hat, said good day, and walked out. The clerk just stared at me in disbelief.

    • I know that it happens, because I read things like this, and this ain’t the first rodeo on things like this happening.

      Never once in any of the iterations of me being behind the counter of a gun shop have I *ever* handed someone a weapon across the counter that I didn’t manually check the chamber was clear and the mag empty.

      NEVER.

      WTF?

  5. Very much agree. It would not stop the terminally stupid, but it might make people who are a little cavalier about their firearms think twice. Nothing says ‘buy a safe’ like the risk of going to jail if your kids shoot somebody. I disagree with all safe-storage laws on principle, but assigning consequences for being an asshat is a good idea.

    • “Nothing says ‘buy a safe’ like the risk of going to jail if your kids shoot somebody.”
      I would think that the risk of someone getting shot unintentionally by their kid would do the trick.
      But, I am sure there are some out there who are so selfish that jail time would be more of a life lesson.

  6. To answer the question, if your willful negligence causes or contributes to the death of another, then you are in some way responsible. I think the degree of contributory negligence should determine whether involuntary manslaughter is appropriate, although the threshold of “degree” could be hard to pinpoint.

  7. My stipulation remains:

    Whatever rules apply to Joe Citizen should apply to everyone else (military, police, celebrities, politicians, etc.)

  8. The rifle didn’t just “discharge” all by itself. He must have pulled the trigger. It is negligence that caused death. I’m not a lawyer but that seems like it should be manslaughter to me.

    • It is negligence (failure to use reasonable care, resulting in damage or injury to another). The question in this case is whether it is criminal negligence or worse. Here is the Texas definition of criminal negligence:

      A person acts with criminal negligence, or is criminally negligent, with respect to circumstances surrounding his conduct or the result of his conduct when he ought to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the circumstances exist or the result will occur. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would exercise under all the circumstances as viewed from the actor’s standpoint.

      So it is basically negligence+.

      Recklessness is basically knowing the risk, but choosing to ignore it.

      Knowingly means that the actor is reasonably certain of the conducts result.

      Intentionally means the result was the goal of the conduct.

      Pointing a gun at someone that you haven’t cleared and pulling the trigger is reckless, even if you thought it wasn’t loaded.

      In PA, involuntary manslaughter requires a mental state of gross negligence or recklessness. I’m assuming criminal=gross negligence, TX recklessness=PA recklessness, and the facts of the article. The teenager is guilty under those facts and assumptions.

  9. Manslaughter is a specific legal term, with a different definition in different states. So maybe, maybe not, but general yes.

    There are basically four states of homicide culpability: negligence, recklessness, knowing, and intentional.

    Negligence is when ought to know there’s a substantial and unjustifiable risk to your conduct, which results in someone’s death. More or less it’s you being a dumbass.

    Recklessness is all of the above, plus you consciously disregarding that risk and doing it anyway. More or less it’s you being a jackass.

    Knowing is the above, with the twist that you’re reasonably certain that your conduct will result in someone’s death.

    Intentional is the worst. That’s when it’s your conscious desire to cause the lethal result through your conduct.

    Each one of these culpable mental states corresponds to a level of homicide. Whether it’s manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide hinges on whether you think the kid or other unintentional shooter acted recklessly or just negligently.

    For adults and teens, automatically, in my opinion, we’re in the “reckless” territory. Somewhere below that, maybe down to about age 8, we’re in negligent territory. Below that, they really may not understand the risks and consequences of their gun play. Or they might. Thus just sketches broad strokes; actual application would depend on the shooter and other circumstances.

  10. “Should people who mishandle firearms, death resulting, be charged with involuntary manslaughter?”

    Prosecutors should prosecute ALL ACTS OF GROSS NEGLIGENCE (leading to death) as involuntary manslaughter. Whether or not someone used a firearm is immaterial.

    Discharging a firearm into someone at close range is almost always an act of gross negligence in my opinion.

      • I’ve never been part of a large group hunting on a game farm, but at the time of the Cheney shooting I worked for a guy who does a LOT of game farm pheasant hunting. He told me that it was the guy’s own fault for being shot, because he was standing in the wrong place in violation of the rules of the hunt, and it wasn’t Cheney’s fault that some idiot put himself in line with a bird.

        • Texas Parks and Wildlife’s summary of the incident stated: Whittington downed a bird and went to retrieve it. While he was out of the hunting line, another covey was flushed and Cheney swung on a bird and fired, striking Whittington in the face, neck and chest. Sounds like carelessness on Cheney’s part to me.

        • “Texas Parks and Wildlife’s summary of the incident stated: Whittington downed a bird and went to retrieve it. While he was out of the hunting line, another covey was flushed and Cheney swung on a bird and fired, striking Whittington in the face, neck and chest. Sounds like carelessness on Cheney’s part to me.”

          If that’s actually what happened, it’s carelessness on the part of both parties.
          Whittington should have waited to retrieve his bird. Going downrange while the range is hot is, I am sure you will agree, careless, at least.
          Cheney should have been aware of his target, and what was around it.
          Gun safety knows squat about politics.

    • I prefer the term “negligent homicide.” The legal definition of manslaughter varies too much between states.

  11. Yes. He should be charged and convicted of something. I don’t know all of the legal garb, but jail time should happen in cases like this.

    And, I hate when the media says, “…and he pointed the gun at the victim and it discharged”. Ugh. Guns don’t just discharge on their own. Someone has to pull the trigger! I know I’m preaching to the choir on this.

    • “And, I hate when the media says, “…and he pointed the gun at the victim and it discharged”.
      Agreed. Sort of like when they say, “And Sixpack’s car went out of control…”

  12. If you’re screwing around and someone dies as a result then there should be some legal penalty, yes. What that is should vary with the seriousness of the situation and I’m not qualified to make that call.

    As for the concept of punishing parents…. That depends heavily on the situation IMHO. If Johnny shoots Tommy with Pa’s gun, the question then is if Pa took reasonable precautions. I can’t cover everything but I’d say there’s a world of difference between Johnny finding a loaded .30-30 on the table and Johnny having to go looking to find the gun, the ammo and then load the gun. Then there’s the question of what Pa knows about Johnny’s firearms training and mental state. If Johnny is well trained and not a diagnosed or suspected mental case then things are different than if he is untrained or known/suspected to be a nut.

    This where I think the “reasonable man test” needs to be applied carefully. There is simply no way to codify every possible situation into law so we need smart, rational and fair prosecutors, judges and juries.

    Unfortunately we often don’t have those things.

  13. “pointed it and then it discharged”

    No no no, he pointed it and discharged it. Don’t use the passive voice to describe negligence.

  14. The OP is a little confusing. It doesn’t ask if the child should be charged with involuntary manslaughter, it asks if the parent should be as well. as to the first, yes, the child should be charged, and indeed he could have been charged as an adult, but the prosecutor, recognizing the accidental nature of the incident, charged him as a juvenile, which I think is appropriate.

    The other question is more difficult. California has solved it with a specific statute providing for specific criminal penalties if a child gains possession of a firearm and either the child or someone else is harmed. the severity of the criminal punishment depends on the nature of the incident. From what I’ve seen though, prosecutors are generally averse to filing charges against a parent for the death or injury to the parent’s own child. However, I worked a civil case where the great grandfather was criminally charged after he left a loaded Glock next to his chair when he went to answer the door, and his 4 year old great grandson found it and massively injured himself. To make matters worse, great grand dad had an FFL, and knew better.

    The basis of this law is that an owner has an obligation to secure his firearms from children. I can’t say I disagree with the premise.

  15. Yes, they should be. I’d be charged with that if I accidentally run someone over with my car. How is a fatal ND any different?

    • Night, raining, you’re under the speed limit, somebody runs into the street from between two parked cars. Of course you should be charged (sarcasm). You’re not going to be charged. Now, if you were speeding, with headlights off, drunk, and texting… you should be hung out to dry.

      The legal system is broken and needs a lot of fixing. One of the fixes is to stick to the law.

      • Aaaaaand, in the case presented to us, the shooter was, metaphorically, “speeding with his headlights off and texting” when he pointed the gun at another and pulled the trigger.

  16. Depends on the circumstances. Not all cases are the same.

    In the case cited, who was really at fault? The kid who fired the weapon? Does he possess any knowledge of the weapon? The kid who handed him the weapon? What are his creds? A parent or guardian who allowed them to be handling firearms in the basement?

    Every law has a number of points which must be individually proven, in order to reach a decision that a crime was committed. Points like INTENT.

  17. Question 1: “Should Police Charge Irresponsible Gun Owners Who Cause Death With Involuntary Manslaughter?”

    Depends on the “irresponsibility.” If the owner acts with simple negligence or anything less, then no. If anything more than simple negligence then yes.

    The real question for me in such a situation is did the owner’s action “cause” the injury. (Which is not the question of the day). Legally we have two definitions of cause. Cause-in-fact and proximate cause. Both must be present for responsibility.

    Cause-in-fact is simply if there is a causal relationship between action and result. But for the conception of the shooter’s grandparents, this wouldn’t have happened. Therefore, the shooter’s great-grandparents caused this death.

    This is where proximate cause comes into play. Proximate cause “is an event sufficiently related to a legally recognizable injury to be held to be the cause of that injury.” I’ve never seen a helpful definition of proximate cause. In my opinion, a gun owner’s negligence is seldom “sufficiently related” another’s act to be the proximate cause.

    Having chambered firearms that are easily accessible to children too young to comprehend gun safety and/or the dangers of firearms would generally be sufficiently related in my opinion. So would keeping unreasonably accessible guns in a house with children who can comprehend gun safety, but don’t because you didn’t teach them (or see to it they were taught) gun safety.

    Question 2: “Should people who mishandle firearms, death resulting, be charged with involuntary manslaughter?”

    Again, depends on the definition of mishandle. If it means violating the rules of gun safety with criminal negligence (or worse), then generally, yes.

  18. Actually, I’d rather have the laws of negligence used to prosecute people who do stupid things with guns rather than specific laws (safe storage for instance) being implemented. You may have an errant person get arrested this way, but at the same time it’s more likely they did something negligent than disobeying a law about how you store your guns.

  19. I believe in most states the definition of involuntary manslaughter is causing the death of another person due to recklessness or gross negligence. Depending on the circumstances, being an “irresponsible gun owner” could certainly meet this definition. It depends upon the facts of each individual case, but it is certainly possible.

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