Blair Boutte of New Orleans, Louisiana, wanted to protect himself from what he perceived to be a violent city. It was a place where 280 murders were occurring each year. So he went out and bought a firearm, registering the weapon to be perfectly legal. On April 10, 1988, he was walking through the Lafitte projects when a drug dealer nicknamed Two Pistols drew his gun and tried to rob him. Blair pulled his gun and fired, and the man fired back. He missed. The drug dealer missed. Yet one of his own bullets found the body of a 14-year-old boy who happened to be in the wrong spot at the wrong time.
“It didn’t end well,” says Boutte, as if there is another way for things to end besides “not well” whenever citizens draw their guns. “At the end of the day, I ended up pleading guilty to manslaughter. An innocent bystander was actually the one who died.” He served 3 years and 9 months in prison for snatching a child’s life away. (ESPN Magazine, Sept. 14, 2015, p. 82)
Ostensibly out of concern for the high murder rate, he bought a gun and ended up a child-killer himself. This is how things typically end when people draw their guns “for protection.”
Gunslingers often miss, and when they do, innocent bystanders, including children, are often gunned down in the process. One such example of this principle was caught on video, and shows a clerk shooting at a would-be robber, (who hadn’t fired first and had barely gotten through the door of the building), not even noticing a small preschool-aged child being held by her mother that was directly in his line of fire. He misses her head by mere inches, firing a round so close that it makes her hair move as the bullet whizzes by. Not surprisingly, he fails to hit the would-be robber, but an inch or two to the left and this child surely would have been killed. (ABC, 4-10-09) After the incident, he failed to recall that there was a child directly in front of his firing path. Amidst the heat of the moment, he simply hadn’t seen her. The most unsettling news of all: such scenarios aren’t at all uncommon, but actually normal. During a crisis, the brain automatically narrows our field of vision and tends to block out all other things, including a child that is directly in front of us. We tune out everything but the shooter, and any other bystanders who may be in the way can essentially become invisible. Such selective vision is another reason why when gunfights transpire, innocent bystanders end up the victims just as often as the shooters.
One thing most people fail to realize is that the vast majority of bullets fired in real-life situations DO NOT hit their intended target. If they don’t hit their intended mark, that means they’re on a trajectory to hit something else. Sometimes that something else is a tree or a tire or a building. Other times, it’s a little boy or girl that just happens to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time when a stray bullet zips along and ends their life. Even police, though they are trained on a continual basis in firearm safety and undergo extensive target practice, miss more often than they hit. If you follow news reports on police shootings, you’ll commonly see something like “police fired 26 rounds . . . the suspect was hospitalized with a gunshot wound to the arm and leg.” Where did the other 24 rounds go?
If you pay attention to news reports of shootings, you’ll see just how common such a scenario is. For example, a shooting at a Halloween party left nine injured, MOST of whom weren’t the actual participants but were young women hit by stray bullets. (USA Today, 11-1-2010, p. 3A) In Colorado, two armed men came to the door of a gun-owner’s house, attempting to rob him. He pulled out his gun, and a firefight broke out. Within a few seconds, he had emptied his chamber. The two would-be robbers had emptied out their own chambers. Bullet holes were everywhere, including apartments on the floor above and below where the shooting occurred. The three involved in the gunfight had fired off numerous shots at each other from virtually point-blank range. Yet none of the three gunslingers had a scratch on them. A 10-year old girl in the house wasn’t so lucky. She managed to catch one in the head and died at the scene. (Girl Killed in Gang Related Robbery, November 2007) No doubt her grieving father wished he had never pulled his gun and started the firefight. Had he not, she would likely still be alive today.
Later that year in Colorado another gunfight broke out at a street corner in Denver. The only tragedy of this gun battle was a little girl standing hundreds of feet away, struck by a bullet that was fired in “self-defense.” (Child Riddled with Stray Bullets while Walking Down Street, June 2008) Over the 2011 New Year holiday in Manila in the Philippines, more than 30 people were accidentally killed by stray bullets from shootouts. (The Week, 1-14-2011) Jennifer Marcia, a writer for The Trace (a news site dedicated to documenting gun violence) says that stories of kids killed by stray bullets on the Fourth of July or Labor Day are commonplace in the U.S. (Mascia, 2015)
In Oregon City, Oregon, a man spent 30 days in jail for reckless endangerment for shooting and killing a dog he says charged at him. Children were playing in a nearby yard and narrowly missed being hit by some of his stray bullets. (USA Today, 5-4-2012, p. 6A) In Jackson, Mississippi, a pit bull jumped a fence and began tugging at a child’s shirt. A man jumped on the dog and held the animal while his wife retrieved a gun. She fired two shots: one struck the dog, the other killed her husband. (USA Today, 7-20-2011, p. 9A) In Massapequa Park, New York, a police officer accidentally shot and killed another officer during a confrontation with a knife wielding man in a home. (USA Today, 3-14-2011) In New York City in the summer of 2012, police officers fired 16 shots at an armed man outside the Empire state Building. They managed to hit the suspect 10 times – a phenomenal hit ratio compared to most police shootings. Yet they also managed to hit 9 innocent bystanders in the process. (Ripley, 2013; for those who did the math, remember that the same bullet can easily go through two or more people.) The stories could go on and on.
Bullets are indiscriminate. They can go through walls and other people to hit whatever is behind them. (See the story: Stay bullet kills child and her aunt.) They go off course when a nervous gun owner pulls slightly to the left or right when firing, or when they are moving to try and escape an attacker themselves. This is why innocent bystanders die just as often as the person (or animal) being aimed at. Even trained police only hit their target 18% of the time in actual shootouts. This jumps to 30% if the suspect isn’t firing at them, but still means that under the best of circumstances, 7 out of 10 bullets miss their intended target. (Ripley, 2013) To provide an example of how much real life varies from the shooting range, NYPD officers must score at least a 78% hit rate to pass their shooting exam.
In areas like Chicago that have been plagued by high rates of gun violence, one thing is pretty consistent: The ones getting buried often aren’t the ones involved in the fighting. They are little girls who catch a stray bullet to the head while walking to school. Mothers caught in the crossfire while out for a midday stroll. Sleeping babies killed in their cribs after errant bullets fly through the walls of their home and into their helpless bodies.
I would be very surprised if the death rates for actual shooters versus innocent civilians isn’t at least 1 to 1, if not skewed heavily towards more innocents dying than those actually involved in the conflict. This is true of war, where civilians die at a rate of 9 deaths for every one death of an actual armed combatant. (Singer, 2014) Urban warfare may not be quite as skewed, but it’s safe to say that in any gunfight, those within several hundred yards are in just as much danger as anyone being targeted.