It was the kind of a statistic that would have left a sane country stunned and shamed.
This country barely noticed it.
It came last month, courtesy of the Washington Post, which reported that, as of mid-October, toddlers in America have been shooting people this year at a rate of one a week. You know how the story goes. Little one finds an inadequately-secured gun and starts playing with it, too young to know that death lurks inside. The thing goes off with a bang, leaving a hole — sometimes a fatal one — in human flesh.
Sometimes it’s Da-da. Sometimes, it’s Nana. Sometimes, it’s the toddler himself.
That’s how it was for Darnal Mundy II. As detailed by Charles Rabin in Tuesday’s Miami Herald, Darnal, 3, was looking for an iPad one morning in early August when he climbed a chair and opened the top drawer of his father’s dresser. Instead of a tablet computer, he found a Smith & Wesson. With the gun pointing directly at his face, he pulled the trigger. A .40-caliber bullet struck him between the eyes, exiting the left side of his skull.
Improbably, Darnal survived. More improbably after brain surgery and rehab in a Miami hospital, he is walking, talking, laughing and playing and has recently begun feeding himself. Darnal still lacks full use of his right arm and leg, but seems, in most other respects, to be perfectly fine, not counting the depressed area on the left side of his head where doctors removed a piece of his skull.
He and his family, it seems superfluous to say, were very lucky. Indeed, they were blessed.
The gun that so nearly proved fatal is now kept disassembled in a safe. We do not know why Darnal’s father, who works as a fitness attendant, feels the need to own it in the first place. But who would be shocked if it turned out that he keeps it for home security? Putting aside the crackpots who think they’re going to have to defend Texas against the U.S. Army, that seems the most common rationale for gun ownership. People fear being caught empty-handed when the bad guys come.
It is, of course, a fear completely at odds with statistical fact.
Like the fact that, according to the FBI, crime has fallen to historic lows and your life, property and person are safer now than they have been in decades.
Like the fact that, according to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, for every gun that is used to wound or kill in self-defense, four are used in accidental shootings.
Like the fact that toddlers are now shooting themselves and others at the rate of one a week.
But it’s not just that fact is no match for fear; it’s that we live in a media culture that has the effect of maintaining fear in perpetuity, keeping it a low-grade fever simmering within the body politic, a heat that abides, but never abates.
A 2014 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, found that exposure to violent crime on TV dramas intensifies the fear that one may become a victim. “CSI,” anyone? And a 2003 study from the same source found that the more people watch local TV news — where if it bleeds, it leads — the greater their fear of crime.
And here, it bears repeating: We have less to fear from crime now than we’ve had in many years.
But, though lacking cause to fear, we fear just the same, fear all the more, making life and death decisions about personal security based on perceptions that have little to do with reality. We fixate on stopping the stranger kicking in the front door. Meantime, there goes the toddler, balancing atop the chair, chubby little hands closing on the gun in the top drawer.
The irony is as sharp as the bang of a gunshot down the hall. We fear so many things. But some things, we don’t fear nearly enough.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.