April 12, 2016

“Melancholy Accidents”: When A Misfire Means Tragedy

By Tayla Burney

What’s more dangerous, people who own guns or the weapons themselves?

Gun rights advocates are often quick to respond with, “Guns don’t kill people; people do.” Yet in researching his book about accidental shootings, historian Peter Manseu found that …”guns are so good at it that people sometimes don’t even have to try.”

In a new book, “Melancholy Accidents: Three Centuries of Stray Bullets and Bad Luck,” Manseu chronicles “melancholy accidents” or grim accidental deaths or wounds resulting from mishandling of firearms. These mishaps date to the very founding of the nation and ran frequently in American newspapers, where Manseu did most of his research.

Today, it’s often stories of mass shootings that garner attention from the media and spark outrage in communities, but these accidental deaths and injuries continue apace. In fact, in 2015 the Gun Violence Archive tallied nearly 6 times as many victims of accidental shootings compared to victims of mass shootings.

I talked with Manseu about the historic backdrop against these accidents and how his research changed his own thinking about guns.

I’d never heard of “melancholy accidents” prior to hearing about your work. What inspired you to put a collection of them together?

I was researching another book “One Nation, Under Gods” which is a history of the United States told from the perspective of minority religious groups. The research for that book meant digging into U.S. newspaper archives, looking for mentions of Buddhism, Hinduism and other faiths in the press.

While I was going through these newspapers, I kept coming across these mentions of “melancholy accidents” and it was just at the point that #GunFail was becoming a recurring trend on Twitter. What struck me was the echo we see in today’s stories back to those from centuries ago. Despite the fact that guns as objects have changed, our relationship with them in many ways hasn’t. Going right back to the beginning of the American experience we’ve not only always had these incidents, we’ve always wanted to read about them.

So, this is maybe a really nerdy question, but where did you do your research and what kind of resources did you use to find these reports?        

When I was researching “One Nation, Under Gods” I was working in the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College. Through them I had access to America’s Historical Newspapers database, a fully scanned digital archive of newspapers going back to the early 18th century – it’s a remarkable resource. Then as I got farther along on the project to turn it into a book, I started using newspapers.com too, which is really addicting. I like to think of that site as a time machine, because the way I would discover these accidents and hear these stories was the way that anyone reading them at the would have.

The days of multiple editions of print newspapers running stories of “melancholy accidents” is gone. But do you think social media is now doing with these stories what newspapers did in the past?

I think it is and there’s an interesting way in which it is. When these melancholy accidents were first being collected and shared, they were local stories. Then, when the technology got better the newspapers started to share content far and wide. You could read about stories from Kansas in Massachusetts or from Maryland in California. And that’s very similar to the way that gun accidents are reported today. Most are reported as local tragedies first and some gain wider audience through social media.

There was one day last month, for example, when two gun accidents out of California got pretty widespread attention. One involved the wife of a founding member of the band the Eagles and the other involved a 2-year-old girl in Sacramento. The former made some waves because it was tied to a celebrity. But the other only spread because it got picked up on social media.

We’ve had recent gun scares at the Capitol here in D.C., and you write about one Senator who was shot in the Russell Office Building in the 1920s…I also noticed a lot of stories coming out of Maryland papers in the book. Was there anything unique or of note about stories you read from this region as you were putting this book together?

Well it certainly struck me that the shooting in the Capitol was the one moment that lawmakers said “Maybe we should do something about this,” so that was a revelation. And it’s interesting too that much of the Capitol’s security today is pretty directly the result of these kind of concerns.

Otherwise, we’re not so different from other places when it comes to these kinds of accidents. Much of what you noticed is because a lot of national happened to be coming out of Annapolis in that era.

Did this project change the way you think about guns at all? Or your sense of how Americans tend think about them more broadly?

Like many people of my generation I grew up watching “The A Team” and war movies and believed without question the idea of the gun as a heroic tool. But doing this research you start to see it as a tool of hapless tragedy. Far more often than a gun being used by a civilian to stop a crime or protect their home when it’s under threat, people end up shooting themselves in the car. It’s a story that’s not as easy to tell or sell as a story you can headline “Vigilante Stops Crime.” But it’s a common story.

And I should say, I definitely did not undertake the book as a political project by any means – I’m a historian not an activist. But I do think far too many people are carrying guns when they don’t need them and storing them in ways that aren’t safe.

The Kojo Nnamdi Show will explore efforts to restrict access to guns on Tuesday, April 12, at 12:20 p.m. Tune in for a conversation between Wason Center for Public Policy’s Quentin Kidd and Virginia Coalition for Common Sense’s James Barnett.

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