A history of accidental shootings in the US

Gun in blood

Back in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, American newspapers regularly carried columns that highlighted melancholy accidents,” or unfortunate accounts of firearm accidents and gun deaths. For example, in July 1844, The Baltimore Sun ran this brief with the headline, “Shot by Accident”:

A young man named Silas B. Howe accidentally shot himself on board the North America, near Rochester, on Friday last, with a rifle he had loaded to kill squirrels. He was from Detroit, and in his pocket was a letter from his mother, with this caution: "Silas, be very careful of your gun."

Peter Manseau, guest curator at the Smithsonian Institution, annotates many of these strange, polite, and non-criminal articles and reports in his new book, “Melancholy Accidents: Three Centuries of Stray Bullets and Bad Luck.” He says these writings describe dark, bizarre situations that help illustrate the historic place of firearms in American society.

“[These columns] are told with this feeling of, ‘There’s nothing we can do about this,’ and certainly they’re told at a time when guns had much more utility in American life than perhaps they do now,” Manseau says. “The sense that guns would be in your home hung above your fireplace was natural, and the idea that having them there also brings the possibility of death at any moment into your home was natural as well.”

Manseau says that these stories of firearm accidents and shooting deaths help to show how guns helped shaped America.

“The mythology of guns in American history is that we owe guns for our independence; guns opened the frontier; guns defended the homestead; they provided sustenance when you needed to hunt to feed your family,” he says. “All of those things are true, to an extent. But this great untold story of guns in American history is the way in which they brought unending hapless tragedy to those who kept them in their homes, in their families.”

According to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit group that tracks firearm injuries and shooting deaths in the United States, there were 13,423 gun-related deaths and 27,000 injuries in 2015. Manseau says that America’s current gun problem is connected to firearm folklore.

“There’s this idea that is so common that we’re all starring on our own action movie, and if we are the good guy with the gun we will be able to prevent bad things from happening, which ignores the volatility of these objects, and the danger,” he says. “That’s a great untold part of American history that I believe these melancholy accidents reveal.”

As Manseau was researching these “melancholy accidents,” he couldn’t help but notice how these stories still play out in the media today. Specifically, he points to a 2014 incident in Hayden, Idaho when a 29-year-old mother was accidentally killed when her 2-year-old son grabbed her loaded firearm.

“Seeing this story light up Twitter and spread so quickly while I was deep in the work of collecting these gun accident stories from centuries before, I was feeling there was this immediate resonance,” he says.

Throughout American history, guns were tools that households needed, but things have changed in the modern era, Manseau says.

“Very few people need a gun now — they’ve become far more of a hobby object than they ever were before,” he says. “Today, you have a lot more occurrences of people cleaning them in their living room while they’re watching television, for example. They’ve gone from being a tool to being a way of defining one’s masculinity, and often one’s Americanness.”

The symbolism surrounding firearms has shaped the American debate on gun control, Manseau says. Some gun owners are skeptical of government regulations that would require weapons to have new or updated safety technologies, and they’re also fearful of attempts to control firearm and ammunitions sales. And on the opposite side, Manseau says the very idea of control factors heavily into the equation.

“Those who want to own and use guns want to own and use them to exert some sense of control over their lives,” he says. “I believe that’s the real difference [with the past]: It has now become this totem of self-reliance in a way that it was not early in American history, specifically because it no longer has the same type of utility. It mainly has an imagined utility — imagining yourself walking through the supermarket and needing to be ‘the good guy with a gun.’ That’s a very different way of thinking about and using guns than going to hunt a duck to feed your family.”

Though he’s not a gun owner and was not raised in the presence of firearms, Manseau says that he sees now how prevalent weapons have been in his life — from watching “The A-Team as a child to America’s blockbuster war films now.

“Doing this research made me aware of the ways in which gun stories were very important to me growing up,” he says. “Though I’ve collected these reports that some would say make a political case against guns, though that’s not my intent, I too have been brought up and raised with this mythology of ‘the good guy with the gun’ and that guns can solve problems.”

He continues: “Collecting these reports, and reading American history through them reminded me that we are not talking about heroic self-reliance most often when we are telling stories about guns. What’s hidden beneath all of that is this hapless tragedy that happens again and again and again, but doesn’t contribute to our sense of ourselves as freedom-loving, freedom-fighting Americans, so it so often goes untold.”

A version of this story first aired as an interview on PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.

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