More Ethics Of Terrible Secrets : Falling Bullets, Moral Luck, And The Accountability Check Of A Lifetime

Somebody's happy!

Somebody’s happy!

Seven year-old Brendon Mackey was walking with his father in the parking lot of the Boathouse Restaurant in Midlothian, Virginia at around 9 p.m. last Thursday when a bullet, apparently shot into the air by a Fourth of July celebrant, fell through his skull, killing him.

“We don’t think this was an intentional shooting. We think that somebody in or around the area was celebrating the Fourth of July. Unfortunately we think they were shooting a gun in a reckless manner and this young boy is a victim,” a police spokesman told the media. The bullet, experts say, may have been fired as far as five miles away.

There is an investigation ongoing, but if history is any indication, Brendon’s killer will remain a mystery. Last Independence Day, a Michigan State student, engaged to be married, was killed the same way, by a bullet believed to have been launched into the sky by a celebrating stranger. Michelle Packard was 34. This spring, her still grieving  fiancé committed suicide.

Has a reckless celebrant with a gun  ever stepped forward voluntarily to accept responsibility for causing such a tragedy? I cannot find any news accounts that suggest it. Deaths from stray bullets fired into the air are rare: most fall to earth harmlessly, and even when they hit someone, the result is seldom a fatality. Still, firing a gun skyward is illegal, and truly reckless and stupid. My father told me that during World War II, he warned the men under his command that he would see that anyone firing a weapon into the air without good reason would be court martialed. “They really seemed surprised when I told them that the bullets came down,” he said.

So imagine that you live in a rural area like Midlothian, Virginia, and as a substitute for fireworks, you fire your legal and licensed firearm into the air to honor the courage of Tom, Ben, and the rest. Then, a day or so later,  you read in horror that a child was killed by a falling bullet shortly after you fired, and the police are looking for the idiot who shot him, accidentally but unforgivably. Would you come forward?

The rationalizations you would be tempted to amass to talk yourself out of doing so would be many and deep. Other people do the same thing, you would say, and nothing happens: this is pure moral luck. Cruel chance has already taken one life; why should it ruin yours too? It’s unfair. You almost are as much of a victim as the child! This wasn’t a malicious act, it was one mistake, and an accident. You’re not a criminal; criminals are bad people, and you are a good one: ask anybody who knows you. Who is served by you going to jail, and being tarred for life as a child-killer? There would probably be a lawsuit and damages; your whole family will be harmed by the consequences of you coming forward. You have a duty to protect them, not a dead boy who can’t be helped. A huge civil damages verdict would not be  fair either: you were just unlucky, and your spouse and children and unborn grandchildren did nothing wrong at all. Your kids won’t be able to go to college; your whole line will be reduced to poverty for generations….all because of the unpredictable trajectory of a falling bullet! Your co-workers will also suffer when you, a critical part of the organization, are forced to leave by public pressure and vindictiveness. Oh, but the jury won’t care—it will side with the grieving parents and the dead child, regardless of the injustice. The jury system is rigged against people like you. Besides, you can’t bring the boy back to life by confessing. You feel terrible, and this will haunt you forever: isn’t that punishment enough? For you to go to jail wouldn’t be justice, it would just be revenge. It would only magnify the tragedy, curing nothing, and adding to the damage. The law is too harsh in these situations anyway.  And who is to say that it was your bullet? Others probably did the same thing, but if you are the only one to come forward, you can bet they will find a way to make you the villain even if you’re innocent. That certainly is unfair. And best of all, this:

Nobody will ever know, if you say nothing.

My guess is that the vast majority of people facing this dilemma would lie low and avoid the legal consequences of their act. Yet that decision is ethically indefensible. It is cowardly, irresponsible, unfair, unjust, criminal, and a violation of civic responsibility. A law was broken, and a reckless act took a child’s life. The parents of the child deserve damages; societal standards of conduct must be enforced. Most tragedies have an element of moral luck; that is no excuse for avoiding legal and personal responsibility for the direct consequences of reckless conduct.

I can safely duck this question, or give “the exam answer” (“Sure I’d turn myself in. It’s the right thing to do”), since my father drilled into my brain at a young age that firing a gun in the air like all those TV cowboys was like firing a gun into a crowd for fun. I do wonder, however, how many of us would do the right thing, if we had killed Brendon Mackey?

Would you?


Pointer: Washington Post

Facts: CBS, Detroit News

Graphic: Jill Boyd’s Place

58 thoughts on “More Ethics Of Terrible Secrets : Falling Bullets, Moral Luck, And The Accountability Check Of A Lifetime

  1. Yes.

    I’d also do the same thing if I’d fired downwards, into a sand bucket, and by some incredible mischance that no-one could reasonably predict, the bullet had exited, ricocheted off a flint, and hit someone.

    Not a difficult moral question. Such difficult questions do exist though, and on those, I might well get it wrong.

    Either you have integrity – answering easy questions like this one with obvious answers – or you don’t.

    I would really, really hope though that it could be shown that it was someone else’s negligence, not mine. That the bullet was of a different calibre for example. It shouldn’t make any difference, but I’m human.

        • I’m thinking more a scenario where you fire off a full clip on a range, remove the magazine, open the bolt to check it’s empty, then fire into a sand bucket anyway. A trained reflex, something you do with any weapon you know positively can’t possibly be loaded, before entering a building, field-stripping it, etc. even if you’d done it only a minute before.

          I don’t own a firearm. I have been trained in basic firearms safety.

          • Again, if you engage in reasonable or reasonably mitigated behavior which should not be expected to harm another person, and somehow it does by random occurance harm another person, you aren’t accountable for any intentional harm. And yes, you do mention that you did it.

            Muddling thing further is what if someone was harmed and the likelihood of it being your unlikely behavior causing that harm is around .01% but it still COULD have been you, do you fess up to the behavior?

    • Yes, for obvious actions you take that within all reasonable expectations would not result in harming another person, then it should be assumed that you shouldn’t be punished.

      Shooting in the air is reckless behavior, not reasonable behavior.

  2. I don’t think I can answer this question.

    I don’t see myself ever firing randomly into the air. I think that by merely avoiding stupid behavior I don’t have to answer the question.

    “Still, firing a gun skyward is illegal, and truly reckless and stupid.”

    Isn’t that the advice that glorious Vice President of our actually suggested when confronted by a possible burglar. Didn’t he also say to shoot through doors at targets you only suspect are bad people, without confirming identification?

    As for the police’s 5 mile radius theory, that’s a bit generous. Barring natural miracles, I’d keep the suspect radius to less than a mile (even less on the side the wind was blowing too). Small arms simply don’t have the range.

  3. Don’t own a gun so firing one into the air just seems reckless. However, how many people who leave smoldering embers or fires that turn into disasters and death ever fess up and take responsibility?

    It’s human nature to avoid responsibility esp when there is no smoking gun

  4. I certainly agree with all the ways in which we wish we’d never find ourselves in such a situation (fire blanks, ballistics checks, gun bans, firing downwards), but you do pose a stark moral question: Would I turn myself in?

    Yes. I’m pretty sure I would.

    I must add I don’t think I’m particularly ethical. Maybe I’m a little given to negativity; maybe I have a yearning for the dramatic; maybe I’ve got a martyr complex. And I think I’d have been much less likely to answer ‘yes’ in my younger days.

    Still, yes, I would. Because it’s so, so the right thing to do. The relief it would grant the victim’s family I guess is part of it. Maybe I actually think that society would be somewhat lenient, within bounds. Maybe I’ve spent enough years thinking about trust that I’m more comfortable with doing the right thing. I’m not sure. But maybe I don’t have to be.

    Jack, if you over-think it, is it ethical? Or should ethical behavior be instinctual?
    You’re the expert on that question, your thoughts please?

    • Interesting question.

      I’d think a person who was raised with particular attention to ethical behavior would find themselves instinctively inclined towards ethical behavior.

      A person who perhaps wasn’t raised to behave ethically or to think ethically, who later in life wishes to behave ethically and therefore must deliberately determine what the right choice is in any given situation is still an ethical person. We all have gut reactions at times that would lead us to behave unethically, that doesn’t make us unethical unless we act on those gut emotions. We all have to discipline ourselves.

  5. Like you, I was schooled in firearms at any early age.
    Therefore, I would not being firing into the air.
    But just for the discussion, let’s say I had a momentary lapse of reason and did so, and five miles away, a child was killed.
    Up until 2012, I would have turned myself in and hoped my honesty over a foolish mistake and lack of intent would be enough to insure I was fairly treated.
    This is America, after all.
    Also, I know myself, the guilt of keeping quiet would eat me alive.

    That being said, since 2012, and the new knowledge of what hoping for mercy or forgiveness in our once civilized country can bring (Zimmerman, Deen), I would have to think long and hard about it.
    Esp. if the child killed was a child of color.

    • I don’t blame you.

      I’d turn myself in anyway. I can’t blame you for not doing the same.

      I’m inconsistent here I know, but I hold myself to a different standard than I do other people. Others get benefit of doubt, and just plain human recognition of human fallibility. I’m an arrogant, self-righteous prig, but I’m not a merciless justiciar.

      I can’t give myself benefit of doubt, while with others I have to. Human fallibility? Sure, I don’t always live up to my own ideals. I try to though, and on this one, it’s easy.

      I guess maybe I’m more arrogant than I think. I’d rather be convicted unjustly for something I didn’t do, than do something and get away with it. In the first case, I could look at myself and know I’m innocent, and don’t care that much about what others think. Sure it would be inconvenient, especially if I ended up on Death Row, but in the end, the only person whose opinion I care about is my own.

      The downside of that is that I can never get away from myself. If I know I’ve done something wrong, and not atoned for it and made what amends I can, I can’t live with that.

      The problem with having this as a personal philosophy is that you have to rely on others’ opinions to cross-check to make sure you’re not fooling yourself. Otherwise you could turn into a monster, convinced of their own moral rectitude, while committing atrocities. In that regard, others’ opinions are vital. If others are wrong on matters of fact though, ignore them.

  6. Of course the person think the whole evading essay might think the same thing if they’d sideswiped a kid walking along the road, but its the same crap shoot. But it might be a little harder to evade.

  7. I don’t think this is a relevant hypothetical because I think anyone taking the time (and possessed of the ability) to read this web log has a basic understanding of gravity and parabolas and knows that what goes up must come down and would not shoot a gun in the air under any circumstances. Conversely, anyone who’s enough of an idiot to fire a gun in the air wouldn’t turn themselves in.

    • But to answer the question, no, I doubt I’d have the courage to turn myself in.

      Maybe the reading assignment should be Conrad’s “Lord Jim” or Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice.”

  8. This makes me mad. EVERYONE knows not to fire a gun into the air. I don’t even own a gun and I know that. So, I am going to make some guesses here — the shooter was drunk, untrained in firearms, and most likely young. That person will not be turning himself/herself in. But, to the extent that person was at a party and there were witnesses present, perhaps the shooter will be found anyway. That poor family.

  9. I have been thinking about this question all day. And what I’ve arrived at is that, yes, I would fess up. It’s not even that I would fess up for the right reasons, but that I would do so for selfish reasons. To me, the opportunity to come clean, to ask for forgiveness from the family, to plead for mercy, to serve out any punishment that might be meted, would far outweigh living with a black, soul- devouring, cancerous secret. At the end of the day, i only have myself to live with. I don’t want to live with someone I can’t stand.

    And has “Sophie’s Choice” ever been discussed on this blog? Now THERE’s something I would like to see tackled.

  10. It’s not even that I would fess up for the right reasons, but that I would do so for selfish reasons. To me, the opportunity to come clean, to ask for forgiveness from the family, to plead for mercy, to serve out any punishment that might be meted, would far outweigh living with a black, soul- devouring, cancerous secret. At the end of the day, i only have myself to live with. I don’t want to live with someone I can’t stand.

    Yes. This. Exactly.

  11. Anyone who shoots a weapon in the air is an idiot, and anyone who does so then turns themselves in to law enforcement in this day and age of mandatory sentencing and no probation or parole is a bigger idiot. Thirty years ago yes, by all means turn yourself in and throw yourself on the mercy of the court. Today mercy of the court has been legislated out by the government requiring mandatory sentences.

      • I think it is an overly broad generalization. That crime, for example, does not have a narrow mandatory sentence. Besides, it’s negligent homicide, not better or worse than drunk driving manslaughter. With all due respect to my friend Bill, not admitting guilt because you don’t like the punishment and think you’ll get more of it than you deserve isn’t that.novel.

        • Sorry Jack but after what we have seen what the politicians and prosecutors were willing to do to bring Zimmerman to trial and convict him in the press anyone who trust the them and the courts to do the right thing is a fool.

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