Felony,Gun control

Data on accidental shootings of kids raises questions

October 14, 2016
in Kids

Delaware has had six accidental shootings involving juveniles since 2014 — almost double the national average

(Photo: Philip Kamrass, Associated Press)

Gun accidents involving children happen fast – and they can be devastating.

In Delaware, a teen boy unintentionally shot his older brother in the neck while watching an action movie. A father accidentally shot his sleeping toddler as he showed his wife his new handgun. A 2-year-old pulled a gun from his father's dresser drawer and shot himself in the head.

These types of shootings are not tracked by Delaware, and federal statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are incomplete. The Associated Press and USA Today Network, which includes The News Journal, set out to find just how common they are.

The findings show that Delaware has had six accidental shootings involving juveniles since 2014 – or 6.34 incidents per million people. None were fatal. That puts the state at almost double the national average of 3.39 per million people.

The incidents were:

Sept. 30, 2014: Anthony Graves normally would keep his handgun in a case in the bedroom closet, but because he was running late one morning, he put it in the top dresser drawer in his bedroom. His 2-year-old son reached the drawer and shot himself in the head in their Brandywine Hundred townhouse. Graves pleaded guilty to unlawfully permitting a minor access to a firearm and felony endangering the welfare of a child in April 2015. He was sentenced to one year of probation.

Aug. 9, 2015: Joseph M. Jenkins Jr., then 38, was showing his wife a handgun he had gotten from a friend when a bullet fired and hit his 2-year-old daughter sleeping on a nearby sofa with the couple's two other children in their Ocean View home. Jenkins pleaded guilty to second-degree assault and endangering the welfare of a child on March 28 and was sentenced to six months in a work-release center followed by two years of probation.

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Similar incidents are common around the nation. The data compiled from the Gun Violence Archive, news reports and public sources indicate that during the first six months of this year minors died from accidental shootings either at their own hands or the hands of others about once every other day.

One every other day doesn't surprise me," said Lindsay Nichols, a senior attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "We know this is a large problem.

The data comes at a time when the nation is debating gun control measures.

Advocates for stricter controls say accidental shootings can be avoided by strengthening child access prevention laws that hold parents criminally accountable when children get hold of guns. These laws are on the books in varying forms in about two dozen states.

Delaware has one of these laws, but it is arguably very weak," Nichols said. "There has been significant evidence showing these types of laws make a difference.

It is a misdemeanor in Delaware for an adult to intentionally or recklessly store or leave a loaded firearm where it may be accessed by a child if the child obtains the firearm and causes serious injury or death to themselves or another person. A violation is punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $2,300.

There have been six people charged under this law since January 2014, four of whom have been charged so far this year, according to state data.

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Nichols said the law is too weak. It could be tweaked to make it a felony and to make the law applicable to unloaded guns and incidents where a child has access to the gun but doesn't use it to injury anyone. She said the strongest law is in Massachusetts where, regardless of whether a child is in the home, a gun must be locked and properly stored.

But those against these gun control measures say expanding this law is not the answer and have opposed efforts to expand child access prevention laws in other states, including Missouri and Tennessee last year.

Sen. David Lawson, R-Marydel, said training adults on how to safely store firearms and educating children on what to do if they see a gun are a better way to curb accidental shootings.

Education has worked far better than prohibition," he said. "That is where the money needs to be put instead of shoving money into legislation.

He said it is not fair to expand the child access prevention law and to lock up parents who are already hurting with the loss or serious injury of a child.

Police investigate after a 17-year-old boy accidentally shot himself in the thigh on South Van Buren Street in Wilmington in June. USA Today and Associated Press compiled data on accidental shootings involving juveniles.

Education would pay the biggest dividend," Lawson said. "When you start getting into the hocus-pocus of statistics and try to make laws on that, that has seldom ever borne out to be of any value.

Liane Sorenson, chair of the Delaware Coalition Against Gun Violence Educational Fund Board of Directors, agreed that education is key.

The death of any child in an accidental shooting is absolutely tragic," Sorenson said. "Some states do have stricter laws than Delaware, but this is not simply a legislative issue. We need to continue to educate responsible gun owners about the proper way to lock and store weapons when there are children in the home, and to empower parents and guardians to ask whether the homes that their children are invited to play in are gun-safe home

Nichols said tracking data on accidental shootings involving juveniles is a good way to start.

It is a very complicated issue based partially on whether the coroners choose to classify as homicides or accidental shootings,” she said. “They have to choose between those two categories, and it makes sense to rethink that system.

Contact Jessica Masulli Reyes at (302) 324-2777, jmreyes@delawareonline.com or Twitter @jessicamasulli.

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