Snakes or guns. Choose your poison

Wednesday , February 19, 2014 - 2:19 PM

Slate, William Saletan

WASHINGTON — Last weekend, after 20 years of handling snakes, Jamie Coots received his final bite. A rattler got him in the back of the hand. It happened as Coots, a Pentecostal minister, was leading the Saturday night service at his church in Kentucky. Two hours later, he was dead.

The same thing happened two years earlier in West Virginia. Mack Wolford, another serpent-handling preacher, succumbed to a rattler’s venom.

After scores of deaths from messing with snakes, you’d think people would give it up. But they haven’t. Three months ago, a 15-year-old boy died in Ohio. A local TV station said it happened when he brought a snake and “passed it to a 16-year-old friend.” A similar tragedy occurred the same day in California, when a homeowner “was showing his friend a snake.” “It’s a shock that something like this could happen,” said a neighbor. “I had no idea there was ever a snake in the home.”

On Dec. 1, a young man died in Florida after friends brought a snake to his apartment. “They passed it around,” according to the Sun-Sentinel, and the snake delivered the fatal wound when the man’s girlfriend picked it up. “It was a stupid accident,” said the dead man’s grandfather. “It never should have happened.” On Dec. 20, a 3-year-old boy died in Arizona after discovering his parents’ snake. A local TV station reported that “the parents told investigators the snake was inadvertently misplaced for a short time. That’s when the child found it.”

On Dec. 22, a 10-year-old girl died in West Virginia. The Charleston Gazette said it happened while she and a 9-year-old friend were handling a snake. A sheriff’s officer told the Gazette, “We’re not blaming the parents, but we do urge everyone to make sure that your snakes are secure.” On Dec. 30, a 10-year-old boy died in Alabama. The sheriff’s office said he “was in a bedroom with his 12-year-old brother and 14-year-old male friend” and received the wound “while they were handling a snake.”

In November, an Indiana man died while playing with a snake at an apartment complex. A 16-year-old Idaho boy died at a house “where people were handling snakes.” One young man in Georgia caused an inadvertent death “while playing with a snake.” Another suffered a fatal wound “while handling a snake” at a friend’s house. A 42-year-old Tennessee man died when his snake bit him.

How could people be this foolish? The good news is that when it comes to snakes, they aren’t. None of the stories I just told you, except for the ones about the two preachers, is literally true.

The bad news is that all of the stories did happen, and all the victims died. But they didn’t die from handling snakes. They died from handling guns. All I did was change a few words in the news reports: gun to snake, gunshot to snakebite, discharged to bit.

I took these stories from Slate’s archive of post-Newtown gun deaths: http://slate.me/1cqHcwU. The archive captures a year’s worth of reported fatalities, from December 2012 to December 2013. It includes more than 12,000 victims. We are killing one another, our children, and ourselves. We are a nation of gun handlers, as reckless as anyone who handles serpents.

I’m not going to tell you that the solution to this madness is to pass another gun law. As the National Rifle Association points out, such laws often fail to achieve their objectives. We need more than laws. We need to change our culture. We must ask ourselves whether the comforts and pleasures of owning a firearm are worth the risks. Having a gun in your home is far more dangerous than having a snake.

Nineteen years ago, shortly after Jamie Coots began handling serpents, a bite killed a woman in his congregation. The county attorney wanted to charge Coots with violating Kentucky’s law against handling snakes in church. The judge, however, refused to sign the complaint. He told the prosecutor: “You and I both know that this practice is not going to stop until either rattlesnakes or snake handlers become extinct.”

That’s a good bet. And it’s a good bet that the snake handlers will go extinct before the snakes do. But the more frightening question is what will happen to the gun handlers. We have 300 million firearms in this country. Pray for the owners, their children, and their friends.

Saletan (@saletan) covers science, technology and politics for Slate.

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