Toddlers have no concept of danger and certainly do not understand the capability of a gun to cause harm. To a child, finding a gun is finding a toy which they will inevitably pick up to play with. If that gun is unsecured and it is loaded, it is only a matter of time before their small fingers find their way to the trigger.
Tragically, incidents of toddlers picking up loaded weapons inside their own homes with a fatal outcome are shockingly high. In 2015 there were 58 cases of toddlers firing a weapon, working out as more than one toddler shooting incident each and every week. In 2016, the Children’s Firearm Safety Alliance reported that 63 toddlers fired weapons with 111 children under 7-years-old accidentally shooting themselves or someone else. For 2017 so far, their figures stand at 104 children killed in a shooting incident involving another child.
The New York Post reported in early September on the tragic case 2-year-old Kyree Myers who had got hold of his parents loaded gun and accidentally shot himself at his home in South Carolina. The bullet entered his head and he died immediately. The toddler’s mother called emergency services and when they arrived at the home they found his father, 38-year-old Keon Myers, so distraught at what had happened, he was holding a gun to his own head and refusing to drop the weapon. Mr. Myers shot himself in the head and he too died at the scene.
The horror for parents in such incidents cannot be imagined and while of course, the last thing they thought would happen was their young child picking up their gun, the point remains that a gun was available for a child to find and it was loaded and ready to fire. Who is responsible, however, when these incidents occur? The child who unintentionally fired the gun cannot be blamed, having no understanding of what they were doing or what their ‘new toy’ actually was.
Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund is an independent organisation conducting research into understanding and reducing gun violence in America. As part of their research, they actively collate data on shootings across the US including incidents involving children and toddlers.
Their website provides an interactive map showing unintentional deaths and injuries from guns involving children. On it, a sea of dots cover a map of America representing case after case of children and young adolescents unintentionally firing a weapon, mostly inside their own homes. All follow the same sequence of events; a child finds a gun and pulls the trigger causing death or serious injuries to either themselves or others.
On 11 January 2017 in Chowchilla, California, a 4-year-old girl found her mother’s handgun. She discharged the weapon shooting her 1-year-old brother in the head. He was taken to hospital but died soon after from his injuries. In another incident in almost identical circumstances, on 1 February 2017 in Carlsbad, New Mexico, a 4-year-old boy while playing with his siblings found his father’s handgun and unintentionally fired the weapon hitting his 2-year-old little brother in the head, killing him.
On 20 June 2017, in Danville, Arkansas, 2-year-old Jacob Chronister found a loaded handgun on top of a dresser inside his home. He fired the weapon shooting himself in the head and was pronounced dead at the hospital. On 28 August 2017 in Scarborough, Maine, a 5-year-old girl while visiting her grandparents found her father’s handgun in his backpack. She accidentally fired the weapon while it was pointing towards her head. The shot killed her instantly.
Although these cases all seem to have followed a very similar sequence of events, the outcomes in terms of criminal responsibility and accountability vary considerably. USA Today reports on research carried out focusing on the 152 accidents involving children under the age of 12 between 2014 and 2016 who either killed themselves or were unintentionally shot and killed by another child.
Parents and caregivers were charged in around 50% of these cases, facing charges ranging from child abuse to manslaughter. Only eight cases resulted in a conviction after a full trial with the majority accepting a plea deal avoiding the trial process. Their punishments were probation and jail time of around 4 years.
In many cases the trauma the parents have been through to lose a child under these circumstances is often seen as punishment enough. For the rest of their lives, they will have to live with the knowledge that a lapse in attention, a thoughtless moment or a complacent attitude towards the weapon or weapons they had in their house with their children has ultimately caused the death of their child.
The number of households across the US where a gun is present, around one-third of homes according to research, means that the lessons from these tragic cases must be learnt. Guns need to be secured and locked away under the knowledge that should little hands get hold of them, the consequences for the child and the whole family can be absolutely devastating.