In the aftermath, legislators pushed for tougher gun storage laws, and Gov. Matt Bevin said, “Parents should be held accountable in large measure for ensuring their children are safe.” Police are still investigating, but no charges have been filed.
Two weeks later, a Maryland 2-year-old found a handgun and fatally shot himself. Tyree Flint had discovered the gun in a bedroom while others people in the home were sleeping. Prosecutors charged a 25-year-old house guest, who owned the gun, with involuntary manslaughter. He could face more than 10 years in prison when he goes on trial next month.
Sometimes the felony prosecution is more important than prison for an already grieving parent, said Molly Chilson, a district attorney in Salida, Colorado, 150 miles southwest of Denver.
Chilson got the call in 2016 when a 2-year-old pulled down a loaded 12-gauge pump shotgun from a towel rack and shot himself in the head. After inspecting the awful scene and interviewing siblings, she had to decide: How to handle Jason Belmont, 45, a former Colorado sheriff’s deputy who owned the gun, and his girlfriend, Stefanie Wray, 30, the boy’s mother?
“This case was different because the evidence showed these two defendants put a loaded shotgun in a child’s play area,” Chilson said.
Chilson said that in such cases she has to consider intent – and they rarely are intentional. Then she determines whether she can tie negligence to the death, because Colorado doesn’t require firearms to be locked up at home.
In the 2016 case, Chilson charged the couple with felony child abuse causing death. She sought prison time for Wray because she was home at the time of the shooting and probation for Belmont. Last month, a judge sentenced them both to four years’ probation and 90 days in jail.
“It was necessary to obtain felony convictions so neither can have firearms in the home again. Then you turn to the punitive side and culpability; the court didn’t see the Department of Corrections as a fit,” Chilson said. “Some family members felt they should both be in prison, but we’re not alleging intentional harm of this child, and it’s important to remember this is a senseless and horrible tragedy.”
Wray and Belmont did not respond to questions from USA TODAY.
At sentencing, Judge Stephen Groome said he was haunted by the images of the boy who pulled down the shotgun. “I have a tough time keeping those images out of my mind, out of my brain,” he said.
He spared Wray prison time, Groome said, so she could care for her surviving children.
“Every day she has to live with what she’s responsible for,” he said. “Every day she’s going to have to wake up and realize more punishment than I could ever have inflicted on her.”
Children under age 12 die from gun accidents in the United States about once a week, on average. Almost every death begins with the same basic circumstances: an unsecured and loaded gun, a guardian’s lapse in attention. USA TODAY and AP
Prevention vs. protection
David Chipman is a former agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who advises the gun violence prevention group Giffords, named after former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, who survived a mass shooting in Arizona in 2011. Chipman said there should be more focus on preventing the incidents from happening in the first place.
“The law is meant to punish, deter and hold people accountable, but the real issue should be how to prevent something with a fatal outcome,” he said. “So we have to deter that behavior and educate people.”
Some in the gun rights community advocate keeping a loaded firearm in reach for protection from a home invasion. Chipman called that scenario a “fantasy.” He said ATF agents and police with children all consider how to safely store firearms – and said he owns a fingerprint-protected gun safe that he can unlock in seconds.
But in rural pockets of America, keeping a loaded firearm around is commonplace, said Elbert Koontz, mayor of Republic, Washington, a town near the Canadian border. With a population of about 1,000, Republic has averaged about three burglaries a year over the past decade.
Republic made headlines this year for pledging to become a “Second Amendment Sanctuary City” by refusing to enforce a new state gun law, which includes background checks and penalties for not locking up firearms at home.
Koontz said parents should focus on teaching gun safety instead of surrendering their ready access to guns.
“Where we live, you’re lucky if you can get a cop in 15 minutes,” Koontz said. “If a criminal comes in and breaks down your door, by the time you open up the gun safe and get the ammunition and load your gun, you’re already dead.”
At least 13 county sheriffs issued news releases stating they would not enforce the Washington law. In February, Columbia County Sheriff Joe Helm called it “unconstitutionally vague” and “unenforceable.”
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson countered with a sternly worded letter to all police chiefs, sheriffs and towns threatening not to enforce the new gun law. He warned that law enforcement agencies that don’t perform the checks could be held liable if someone gets a gun and uses it to do harm.
“Local law enforcement officials are entitled to their opinions about the constitutionality of any law,” Ferguson wrote. “But those personal views do not absolve us of our duty to enforce Washington laws and protect the public.”