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When Kids Shoot Their Parents: An American Tradition

Shots fired at mothers and fathers by sons and daughters are as much a part of the history of gun ownership as Davy Crockett or the Minutemen.

When aspiring gun model and staunch Second Amendment defender Jamie Gilt was shot by her four-year-old son in Florida earlier this week, some observers saw a moment ripe for the particular form of schadenfreude most at home on social media: an instant-karma story of someone getting what was coming to them.

A prolific sharer of pro-gun memes, Gilt had recently posted “My right to protect my child with my gun trumps your fear of my gun” to her Facebook page, and on Twitter referred to a gold-tone handgun as “my new toy.” It felt almost inevitable that her child and her toy would find each other with calamitous results.   

To regard Gilt’s shooting as a black comedy of just deserts would be a mistake, however. Her family’s near tragedy is also the latest chapter in  a mostly forgotten history of very young children accidentally shooting their parents. Recorded as part of a litany of gun accident reports that stretch back deep into the eighteenth century, shots fired at mothers and fathers by sons and daughters are as much a part of the American tradition of gun ownership as Davy Crockett or the Minutemen.

A report of an accidental shooting appears in the Republican-Northwestern on December 17, 1909.

“Baby Accidentally Shot His Mother,” read a 1909 headline in Illinois. The story that followed recounted how a boy named John, 14 years old, had come in from hunting rabbits and placed his rifle in the corner of the room. Then his three-year-old brother Harold took up the gun and shot their mother as she tended the fire, “the bullet entering the front of her neck and passing out just behind the ear.”

Like Gilt, many of the parents involved were proud gun owners, eager to pass down a heritage of sportsmanship and self-reliance.

“A Chicago father bought his boy a .22-caliber revolver and was proud of the fact that the youngster was making great progress as a marksman,” a report from Pennsylvania said in 1900. “A few days ago the boy accidentally shot his mother, and, after several days lingering between life and death, she is now dead. There is a lesson to be learned in this by indulgent fathers. There are plenty of things for boys to play with besides firearms.”

The notion of “play,” too, can be found across the centuries. Here’s one such occasion from 1897:

A DANGEROUS PLAYTHING: Young Child Accidentally Shot Her Mother While Handling a Revolver

While playing with what was supposed to be a toy pistol, which she found in her home, the little daughter of Mrs. Mary James, of Homsteadville, on the outskirts of Camden, yesterday accidentally shot her mother, the bullet striking her in the head.

The Times, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, February 22, 1897

And 1987:

Boy shoots his mother with ‘toy’

A 4-year-old boy accidentally shot his mother in the leg after mistaking a city police officer’s .38-caliber handgun for a toy, police said. The gun belongs to Police Officer Ramon Chaparro, who girlfriend is the boy’s mother, Capt. John Bucciero said. He said the gun had been placed on the floor while the couple watched television.

Asbury Park Press, Asbury Park, New Jersey, February 5, 1987

Jamie Gilt’s son is likely too young to know what he has done — what his mother put him in the position to do — his understanding instead limited to that of a three-year-old who did something similar in Texas 61 years ago this month:

Boy, 3, Accidentally Kills Houston Mother With Gun

A three-year-old boy accidentally shot his mother to death with a pistol in the bedroom of their home here early today. The mother, Mrs. Germain Martin, 33, apparently was lying on a bed, sleeping, when the youngster, Larry, got the pistol from a night stand and pulled the trigger. He told Homicide Detective D. M. Fults that “I hit mommie.”

Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Corpus Christi, Texas, March 21, 1955

A day after the shooting, Jamie Gilt was reportedly in stable condition. Her country is not so lucky.

Peter Manseau in the author of Melancholy Accidents: Three Centuries of Stray Bullets and Bad Luck, which will be published later this month by Melville House. 

[Photo: Shutterstock]