A toddler found a handgun and fatally shot himself. His case is one of at least 73 accidental child deaths involving a gun in 2018

Published 6:01 a.m. ET March 19, 2019 | Updated 2:54 p.m. ET March 19, 2019

Children were killed more than once a week last year under similarly tragic circumstances – a loaded gun and an adult’s attention lapse – presenting prosecutors with a vexing question: Who is to blame, and how should that person be punished?

At least 73 juveniles under age 12 were killed last year, roughly the same pace as the previous five years. What happened next varied widely. 

A 2017 USA TODAY and Associated Press investigation of the 152 deaths from 2014 to 2016 found about half ended in a criminal charge, usually of adults who police said should have watched children more closely or secured their guns more carefully.

Nearly identical cases then and in 2018 had markedly different outcomes.

A grandfather was charged in Virginia, a father was charged in Georgia and an uncle was charged in Missouri – all with variations on criminal negligence. But elsewhere in Virginia, prosecutors declined to charge parents after two incidents that left 2-year-olds dead on the same day in May.

Felons are the only consistent exception. Because it’s illegal for anyone convicted of a felony to possess a gun, almost every felon involved in an accidental gun death faces criminal charges.

Two tragedies, different outcomes

Toddler Montreal Dunn found a gun and shot himself in the head in Louisville in August. The 2-year-old was rushed to the hospital in a police cruiser, but he died.