From Play to Peril: A Historical Examination of Media Coverage of Accidental Shootings Involving Children*

Jennifer Carlson, Jessica Cobb

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Objectives: To examine how firearms-related incidents are defined as social problems versus personal tragedies. This is achieved by examining a case of gun violence where the actors immediately involved are apparently blameless: child-involved accidental firearms deaths and injuries. Specifically, we examine changing narratives of these incidents from the mid-19th century to the present. Methods: A database of 314 New York Times articles on child-involved accidental shootings from the mid-1800s to the present day was compiled and analyzed using Atlas.ti. Results: Our content analysis shows that despite declining prevalence and coverage over time, these incidents were increasingly framed as social problems through narratives of criminalization and responsibilization. These discursive frameworks differ in how they allocate blame and advance appropriate social responses to child-involved shootings. First, “criminalization” involves a police response to both the child shooter and, especially after the 1911 promulgation of New York's Sullivan Act requiring a license for concealable firearms, to adult custodians. Second, “responsibilization” allocates responsibility for the proper management of guns to adults at home (since the 1970s) as well as to society at large (since the 1980s) within a discourse that frames child-involved accidental shootings as indicative of broader social disorder. Conclusions: Narratives of child-involved shootings reflect a broader social transformation of accidents into public problems that occurred in the 20th century. As such, the results provide insight into both the contemporary gun debate and the moral valuation of children.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)397-412
Number of pages16
JournalSocial Science Quarterly
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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