Senseless, Needless, Unintentional Shootings by Kids

March 20, 2017

By Stacey Newman, Missouri State Representative

Photo courtesy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Damian was only 12 years old and loved playing basketball. Last week he was home alone in St. Louis with his nine year old brother and found a handgun. While they played with it, the gun discharged and Damian was shot and killed.

Damian is not alone. Mi-Kenzie, age 6, was shot and killed unintentionally by one of her siblings in St. Louis last month. Just like Damien, they found a gun and families were forever tragically altered.

As of March 17, just twelve weeks into 2017, there have been at least 55 incidents across the country where a child with access to a loaded gun shot themselves or someone else, or in some instances both.

Fifty five kids of all shapes and sizes. That’s an average of more than four children each week, just this year.

With all the talk of rampant gun violence, why is there no discussion in our legislatures of the dangers associated with reckless, irresponsible gun owners whose choice to carelessly store their guns leads to so many injuries and deaths – many of them children?

The three youngest victims were under the age of two, each shot by a young sibling.

Twenty nine of the shooters were under the age of thirteen; seven were toddlers. You read that correctly – seven toddlers who pulled the trigger of a gun, killing or injuring themselves, another child or even an adult. In 2015, Missouri gained national attention by being number one in the country in toddler shootings with an all-time record of five incidents. Little kids barely able to walk were finding guns, usually in their homes and with their innate curiosity, most certainly had the strength to shoot them.

Because of restrictions pushed by the corporate gun lobby, no research or even data collection of child firearm injuries or deaths is done at the federal government. If there’s no concrete data, it can’t be a problem, right?

Very wrong.

This is why my partner, Beth Joslin Roth of the Safe Tennessee Project, and I launched the Children’s Firearm Safety Alliance (CFSA) last fall at the Institute for Public Health at Washington University. We track daily unintentional shootings of kids by kids under the age of 18 and work closely with the medical community, public health officials, lawmakers, and prosecutors not only in our own states of Missouri and Tennessee, but nationwide.

CFSA also promotes child access prevention (CAP) laws by working closely with legislators in numerous states who sponsor bills mandating safe storage of firearms and holding adults criminally responsible if a child finds gun and shoots someone. I have sponsored CAP bills in Missouri myself the past few years, including HB362 in 2017, written by prosecutors, which would alter Missouri’s child endangerment law to include firearms. Sadly, Missouri is just one of 26 states which do not hold adults liable if a child unintentionally shoots themselves or someone, leaving it up to local prosecutors to find other means to charge adults, if at all. So far, the leadership in the legislature has failed to even schedule a public hearing for any CAP bill, the first step in advancing a proposal.

The medical community is enraged and frustrated that they are left with the responsibility of saving little kids who have been needlessly shot, which they often cannot do. Emergency room physicians and pediatric surgeons, particularly at our children’s hospitals, are too often tasked with the subhuman role of treating highly preventable severe gunshot injuries. As one physician who witnessed a recent incident told me, “My team tries really hard, but these senseless tragedies can be demoralizing.”

My partner Beth and I read every single media account of every unintentional child shooting that we can find, working closely with the Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit which tracks national daily gun violence incidents of all kinds. We research and collect data which is publicly available on our CFSA site, but often can’t get specific incidents out of our minds and hearts.

One, which particularly haunts me, is of a ten year old, home alone on a snow day, who found a shotgun and playfully loaded it. He tragically shot and killed himself, which the local prosecutor in West Virginia ultimately charged as a suicide. As you may have guessed, West Virginia is one of the states which does not currently hold adults criminally liable in a child shooting. I understand the shooting was traumatic for family members and his community, but I’m also certain it was not a suicide.

I’m very heartened by the dedicated work of the Gun Violence Initiative at the Institute for Public Health, which by partnering with the United Way, numerous community groups and law enforcement, is doing what they can to lower gun violence rates in St. Louis. I’m reminded of their recent Pediatric Firearm Injury and Safety symposium where a physician speaker said he prefers not to use the term “gun violence,” but rather “gun violence injuries.” He said they don’t see many of the “gun violence fatalities” because EMTs usually bypass emergency rooms and go straight to the local coroner with those. That was a chilling reminder.

I’m dismayed that even with national media attention on toddler and other unintentional child shootings in our own backyard, the Missouri legislature turns a blind eye. I worry about the emotional toll on our medical champions as our legislature silently stands by. We must hold adults accountable for their firearms and we must put kids at the forefront of addressing  gun violence.

We cannot wait until one of our own loved ones becomes an unintentional child shooting statistic.

We cannot afford to lose one more child, regardless of zip code.  We simply cannot.

This post is part of the March 2017 “Kids and Violence” series of the Institute for Public Health’s blog. Subscribe to email updates or follow us on Twitter and Facebook to receive notifications about our latest blog posts.

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