Justice is haphazard after kids’ gun deaths

Jennifer Collins, dean of SMU's Dedman School of Law, talks about the moral and legal struggles involved when kids accidentally shoot themselves or others with parents' guns.

By Larry Fenn, AP
Jim Sergent, USA Today

. . . Even when gun accidents (involving children) do lead to criminal charges, most parents and guardians still avoid prison. Amy Pittman was one of 50 people to be convicted of a crime following the accidents the news organizations reviewed. (A few other cases are pending.) Slightly less than half of those people were sentenced to probation; the rest were ordered locked up, typically for about four years.

For parents and guardians who are not felons, the stark divisions in outcomes reflects the struggle prosecutors face after almost any accidental death.

“You feel an enormous amount of sympathy for these parents because it’s the most unimaginable loss there is when you lose a child. Prosecutors understandably struggle with the deterrent value with filing charges,” said Jennifer Collins, dean of Southern Methodist University Law School, who has studied prosecutions of negligent parents.

The same pattern plays out when children drown in swimming pools or suffocate in hot cars. Collins studied such cases a decade ago and found that about half ended in prosecutions; much of the time, prosecutors applied what she called a “suffering discount” as they looked for a balance between deterrence, retribution and mercy.

The government’s most recent official count of gun deaths, by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, identified 77 minors who died in gun accidents in 2015, but the AP and USA TODAY counted 146 for that year, including 96 in which a child either shot themselves or another child

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