Beth Joslin Roth of Safe Tennessee Project is also co-director of the new national Childrens Firearm Safety Alliance, launching in St. Louis on October 14, 2016.
October 10, 2015 – Newsweek by Mike Spies
As Latasha Dyer and her two daughters pulled up to their cramped trailer, she spotted her son, Dallas, on the park lot. He knew it was against the rules to play outside when no one was home, and since he was her oldest child, Dyer expected the 14-year-old to set a good example for his sisters, so she sent him to his room.
It was early evening, October 3, 2015, and the weather was starting to cool. Dyer, 30 and fair-skinned, with three stars tattooed on her right foot, followed Dallas inside. The young girls hung back on the lot, a small, grassy expanse in a rural east Tennessee town called White Pine. She went through her clothes and then put on a long-sleeved shirt that said “Property of Jesus.”
Around dinnertime, the mother heard a blast, and then her 11-year-old, Katie, came barreling through the trailer. “The boy shot MaKayla!” she screamed. “The boy shot MaKayla!”
Dyer ran toward the door, passing a wall decorated by her three children, who had dipped their hands in paint and pressed them there. The smallest prints belonged to MaKayla, Dyer’s mischievous 8-year-old daughter. She loved to wear plastic tiaras and play in the dirt, hated shoes and was not much fonder of school.
When Dyer stepped outside, the lot was still damp from rain. She found MaKayla lying in the mud, dying. She dropped to the ground and hugged the child to her chest.
Later, she learned what happened. An 11-year-old neighbor, Benjamin Tiller, had asked to see the child’s new puppies, Buddy and Spaz. When she said no, he went and grabbed a 12-gauge shotgun, aimed it out the window and pulled the trigger. He shot MaKayla in the chest, just above her heart.
It had not been hard for Tiller to get the gun. The weapon belonged to his father, and the boy had found it right where he thought he would, stored in an unlocked closet, loaded.
102 Deaths in Two Years
Young children shoot themselves, other kids and adults with stunning frequency in America. From September 1, 2014, to September 1, 2016, a child younger than 13 was the perpetrator in at least 300 acts of gun violence, resulting in 102 deaths and 198 injuries, according to data provided by the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit.
The vast majority of those shootings were unintentional, the result of a child playing with an unsecured firearm found in a drawer, a purse or the backseat of a car. Just more than half of them were self-inflicted, while slightly more than a quarter involved one child shooting another. The rest of the victims were adults. In all but a few instances, the shooter was a boy, and the gun usually belonged to a parent who had not properly locked it away.
Shootings by young children pose a unique challenge for law enforcement officials: Who is responsible when a kid using an unsecured firearm kills or injures another person?
Some prosecutors have sought to hold gun-owning parents accountable. In Pennsylvania, a 26-year-old father was charged in September with endangering the welfare of a child after his 2-year-old son shot and killed himself. In New Jersey, a 22-year-old mother is awaiting trial after one of her young sons killed his brother. But usually nothing happens. “Prosecutors are hesitant to bring charges against grieving parents,” says Daniel Webster, a gun violence researcher at Johns Hopkins University.
There are other reasons district attorneys don’t prosecute shootings by children: They don’t like to try cases they believe they will lose, and there is no federal law requiring gun owners to store their weapons safely. Twenty-seven states have a statute that seeks to hold adults accountable when children get their hands on a gun. But many of these statutes don’t apply to storage and set an absurdly high bar for what can be successfully prosecuted. Tennessee, for example, prohibits adults from providing a handgun to a minor or allowing a kid to possess one—but only if the adult thinks there’s a significant risk the child will use the weapon to commit a felony.
Just 14 states have negligent firearm storage laws, or statutes that mandate adults take precautions to secure their guns in such a way that children cannot access them. But of those, only four states (Florida, California, Massachusetts and Connecticut), along with the District of Columbia, allow for felony charges.
There is evidence that tough safe storage mandates lead to fewer child shootings. A 1997 study in the JAMA found that states with a felony punishment saw a 41 percent reduction in fatalities after the law was adopted.
Tennessee doesn’t have a negligent storage statute.
After MaKayla died, prosecutors charged the 11-year-old boy who pulled the trigger with first-degree murder. Tiller was found guilty in February and placed into the custody of the Department of Children’s Services, where he will remain until he is 19. Jimmy Dunn, the local district attorney, declined to respond to repeated requests for comment.
MaKayla’s murder drew widespread media attention , and activists and sympathetic lawmakers in Tennessee saw an opening to push for a law penalizing negligent storage. They had other powerful examples to draw on. In 2015, in Coffee County, a 3-year-old boy shot his 18-month-old brother in the head. A few months later, in Memphis, a 4-year-old shot and killed himself while his father was doing yard work.
Laws that tighten gun restrictions have little hope of making it through the Tennessee Legislature, but the bill dubbed “MaKayla’s Law” seemed poised to be an exception. After all, the National Rifle Association touts responsible gun ownership as a core principle. On its website, the NRA states, “In a home where guns are kept, the degree of safety a child has rests squarely on the parents and gun owner.”
‘I’d Never Even Heard of the NRA’
MaKayla was killed three weeks after her eighth birthday. She was given enough toys that day to fill a large bag. Dyer couldn’t bring herself to part with the gifts, which all had to do with MaKayla’s favorite movie, Frozen. MaKayla had planned to dress up as one of the main characters, Queen Elsa, for Halloween. Instead, she was buried in that costume—a pretty blue gown and a sequined tiara.
By early winter, Dyer had moved from the trailer park, resettling with her children in a home in the Knoxville area. Sometimes, Dyer would forget MaKayla was dead and call her in for dinner. Other days, she couldn’t think of anything else. Dyer took to sleeping with MaKayla’s duck-shaped pillow (“Ducky Momo,” MaKayla called it), which still smelled faintly of her daughter, but gave away the child’s puppies.
In January, Dyer received an email from Beth Joslin Roth, the policy director of the Safe Tennessee Project, a new gun violence prevention group. Roth, a mother of two, had been consumed by MaKayla’s murder. She’d recently been in contact with legislators in Nashville looking to sponsor a bill that would put the onus on adults to safely store their weapons when kids were around. It was Roth’s idea to call the legislation MaKayla’s Law, and she asked Dyer for her blessing. She also wanted Dyer to appear at a committee hearing in Nashville to talk about her daughter’s death.
Dyer had never been interested in politics and had little idea of how the process worked. She thought over the requests and ultimately agreed to both. “I was feeling real hopeful,” she says now. “I never thought there were people out there who would fight the bill. I’d never even heard of the NRA.”
But as the showdown over MaKayla’s Law demonstrates, the group’s stated gun safety priorities now take a backseat to its political agenda. Over the last two decades, the NRA has evolved into a lobbying force that relentlessly promotes firearms as a key to personal liberty and self-defense. It fights every possible restriction on either, no matter how slight. (The NRA declined to comment for this story.)
At the state level, the group has successfully pushed for legislation that allows firearms in bars in Georgia, churches in Mississippi and college classrooms in Texas. Since March, three states—Idaho, West Virginia and Missouri—have adopted laws that waive training requirements and allow people to carry concealed handguns in public without a permit or certified training.
With MaKayla’s story still on Tennesseans’ minds, the NRA flew in a lobbyist from its Virginia headquarters to squash the legislation. The terrifying home invasion scenarios that the group conjures to rally zealous members may not directly discourage cautious gun storage habits—but they don’t leave much room to imagine unlocking the gun safe when the burglar creeps through the front door.
The lobbyist also had another mission: to convince lawmakers to vote for a bill that would give some Tennessee residents another place to legally take their guns: the campuses of state colleges and universities.
‘Run Away! Tell a Grown-Up’
Not so long ago, the NRA might have supported the passage of MaKayla’s Law or even helped draft the bill. In 1989, there was a rash of accidental shootings by children in Florida. The incidents were covered in major media outlets, including The New York Times, The Oprah Winfrey Showand People magazine. The widespread attention prompted lawmakers to act.
The NRA’s Florida lobbyist, Marion Hammer—the same woman who, in later decades, would be responsible for the “Stand Your Ground” laws that offer legal protections to shooters claiming self-defense—worked with elected officials to produce the first storage statute in the country. It includes a felony penalty for violators who leave “a loaded firearm within the reach or easy access” of someone 16 or younger, who then takes the weapon and “inflicts injury or death” upon himself or another human being.
A study of Florida’s storage law, published in the journal Pediatrics in 2000, concluded that child shooting deaths in Florida fell 51 percent in the eight years after it was adopted.
The NRA now vehemently opposes codifying storage standards. It arguesthere is “no compelling need for such invasions of privacy.” Instead, the organization champions the education program, Eddie Eagle GunSafe. The curriculum, which the NRA enthusiastically promotes to public school districts, features a cool but sensible bird, Eddie Eagle, who teaches children between the ages of 4 and 10 what to do when they discover a gun: “Stop! Don’t touch. Run away. Tell a grown-up.”
In an email, Hammer says Eddie Eagle has reached 28 million children, rendering storage laws unnecessary. “[They] don’t teach anyone anything,” she says. “They only punish people for accidents and create crimes.”
‘A Very Good Bill to Pass’
On March 1, Dyer met Roth at the statehouse in Nashville. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and she was wearing a green shirt—MaKayla’s favorite color. Roth led her into a conference room, where they worked on a statement Dyer would read later that day at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Sara Kyle, a first-term Democrat, was set to introduce the bill. A narrower version of the Florida law, it said that when a child under 13 shoots himself or another person with a “recklessly” stored gun, an adult could face felony charges.
Dyer puzzled over how to describe her daughter. Not long ago, MaKayla was a sassy child who delighted in her own jumpy energy. When she wanted a toy, she would corner her grandma, place a hand on her cocked hip and ask, “Is it your payday?”—cracking up the whole family. But what would that kind of detail mean to a roomful for strangers? Would it help them see and hear the child? Could they imagine the absence of all that life?
She began to write: “MaKayla was my 8-year-old daughter. She was always full of laughter. She always had a smile on her face and was always in a good mood, and she loved everyone.”
Around the same time, Kyle received a visitor: Erin Luper, a young lobbyist the NRA had sent from its Virginia headquarters to Nashville. Luper was familiar with the state, having earned a political science degree from the University of Tennessee in 2007. Luper insisted that the lawmaker “didn’t have the votes to get the bill out of committee,” Kyle says. “The Eddie Eagle program,” Kyle recalls Luper saying, “was enough to find a solution to this problem.” (Luper declined to comment for this story.)
The safe storage bill hearing took place in an elegant room with oak-paneled walls. Nine lawmakers, seven Republicans and two Democrats sat behind a raised dais, looking down at the long, rectangular witness desk below.
Dyer was the first to testify. Nervous, she read her statement quickly, declaring as she finished that she stood behind MaKayla’s Law “100 percent,” and added, “I am asking you today to search your hearts and take a stand against these preventable tragedies.”
The only lawmaker to express outright skepticism at the hearing was Senator Mike Bell, a goateed farmer considered the most pro-gun member of Tennessee’s upper chamber. He had recently sponsored a bill allowing state college and university employees with concealed-carry licenses to bring their guns onto campuses, a proposal that was advancing through the Legislature.
One of the people in the chamber during the hearing on Makayla’s Law was an elderly district attorney named Ray Whitley. He was in the Capitol on other business and not scheduled to talk about Kyle’s bill. But spying an opportunity, Bell called on Whitley to offer his expert opinion on Tennessee’s existing “reckless endangerment” statute. He asked the veteran prosecutor: Didn’t he and the state’s DAs already have the tools they needed to bring cases against gun owners like Tiller’s father?
“I think it would be a very difficult prosecution,” Whitley said of making a case under existing Tennessee law. “I’m not here to speak on this bill, but I think it would be a very good bill to pass.”
Bell seemed surprised by the answer.
When it was Luper’s turn, she argued that Eddie Eagle, not a new law, was the best way “to reduce firearm-related accidents” among children. She smiled at the lawmakers. “I will spare the committee the jingle that goes along with the Eddie Eagle program.”
Luper was not pressed on Eddie Eagle’s efficacy, but public health researchers who studied the program found that children fared poorly at resisting unsecured guns, whether they had received the training or not. Most of the kids who were left alone with a disabled firearm did not move away from the weapon and seek out an adult, as the training instructs. “Some kids would see the gun, go to the door to check if anybody was watching, and then go back and pick up the gun,” Raymond Miltenberger, a lead author on two studies, said earlier this year. “They knew they weren’t supposed to do it, but they went ahead and did it anyway.”
Lisa Monroe, the early childhood education specialist credited with bringing Eddie Eagle into line with current teaching practices, now says she did not know the curriculum would be touted as a replacement for negligent storage legislation. “No one ever told me that’s how the program was going to be used,” she says. “If they had, I assure you I wouldn’t have had anything to do with it. That’s giving way too much significance to the lesson.”
None of this, however, was mentioned at the hearing. And after Luper spoke, Senator Kyle chose to hold the bill rather than call for a vote. She didn’t think she had the votes.
‘The NRA Destroyed My Career’
Republican lawmakers in Tennessee have seen what can happen to those who defy the NRA. In 2012, Representative Debra Maggart was up for re-election. She chaired her party’s caucus in the state House and had a 69 percent approval rating in her district. A lifetime NRA member, she held an A+ grade from the organization.
That spring, the gun lobby pushed a bill that would have allowed Tennessee residents to keep firearms in their cars, even in business parking lots. Maggart thought the legislation might be at odds with private property rights, so she sent the bill to a study committee for further examination, effectively placing it on hold.
A few months later, the NRA rented three billboards in Maggart’s district, featuring a picture of her face next to President Barack Obama’s. “Rep. Deb Maggart says she supports your gun rights,” it said. “Of course, he says the same thing.”
According to campaign finance records, the NRA spent at least $50,000 attacking the senior Republican, a significant sum for a state election. Soon, Maggart’s numbers plummeted. She went on to lose her primary by 16 percentage points to Courtney Rogers, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel.
Rogers had never run for office before. But she had the NRA’s endorsement, which the gun group promoted by spending at least $29,000 extolling the challenger’s virtues. Four years later, Rogers argued that the 1970 Kent State massacre, in which National Guardsmen killed peaceful anti-war protesters, could have been prevented had the students been armed.
“The NRA destroyed my political career,” Maggart says. “I’d never once voted against them. But they decided to teach the General Assembly a lesson.”
That lesson was still resonating in 2016 when Luper, the NRA lobbyist, sent an electronic “alert” to the group’s members in Tennessee, rallying them against MaKayla’s Law. The email blast invited recipients to “take action” by clicking a button, which would generate a digital missive to a lawmaker in the appropriate district, urging him or her to oppose the safe storage legislation.
The alert, issued on March 11, preceded a second hearing on MaKayla’s Law, this one before a five-member committee of the Tennessee House. Days later, Republican Representative Jim Coley brought the hearing to order. A grandfatherly politician then in his fourth term, Coley, apparently unaware of the NRA’s online campaign, sided with two Democrats and voted to allow the bill to move forward.
Outside the hearing room, Luper sat on a bench across from a flat-screen TV, which showed the action inside the chamber. After the vote, she pushed through the doors to meet Coley. “She was disappointed I voted the other way,” Coley recalls.
He says the encounter “concerned” him. “You want your NRA score to be as high as you can get it,” he says.
A week later, Coley joined his fellow Republican lawmakers to vote against MaKayla’s Law. The bill was dead.
‘A Mass Exodus of Liberals’
That same week, Bell, the Republican senator who had opposed MaKayla’s Law, exchanged emails with Luper about his guns-on-campus legislation. Bell had received a long note from a supporter of the bill. The author was a college instructor who, she said, had spent numerous hours training with firearms. “And despite all that hard work,” she wrote, “if the shotgun-wielding robber picks me as his next victim on campus, my employer refuses to let me do anything about it.”
“Read this email,” Bell wrote. “It’s gold!”
Luper replied, “Wow! That’s awesome! I wonder if we should reach out and ask her to send that to the paper as an op-ed?”
Another letter Bell had received on the campus-carry bill took a critical view of the proposal.
It was from the president of Middle Tennessee State University, who said he rejected the notion that people who carry concealed weapons cannot pose a public safety risk. He referred to a statistic from the Violence Policy Center, which said at least 29 mass shootings had been carried out by licensed gun owners since 2007.
Bell forwarded the email to Luper. “Do you have any information to refute what the letter says about permit holders committing mass shootings?” If Luper replied, her response was not captured in public record, according to a review of Bell’s correspondence.
In April, faculty members from the University of Tennessee released an internal survey. Almost 90 percent of those who completed it said they “strongly” disagreed that allowing firearms on school grounds was in “the best interest of the campus community.” Many threatened to quit if the bill became law.
Bell considered the survey a cause for celebration. “Maybe this will give UT a chance to hire some conservative teachers if we have a mass exodus of some of these liberals who responded to this,” he said on the Senate floor.
Soon after, both chambers of the Legislature approved the guns-on-campus bill. Tennessee’s Republican governor declined to sign it but did not veto the measure. It took effect July 1.
Bill Beck, a Democratic member of the Tennessee House, still puzzles over the outcome. The guns-on-campus legislation was “horrible,” he says, but “there was so much support out there for a law that could prevent deaths like MaKayla’s.”
‘I Love You to the Moon and Back’
Over the summer, Dyer had dinner with her son, Dallas, and mother, Angie, at O’Charley’s, a casual Southern restaurant chain. Dyer had recently found a note in MaKayla’s bag of Frozen toys, written by her daughter shortly before she was murdered.
“You’re the best mommy ever,” it read. “I love you to the moon and back.”
Dyer’s mother took a sip of sweet tea and wiped her eyes. “I don’t think we’ll ever be able to adjust,” she said, adding, “Why would the NRA do this?”
“I just don’t understand politics,” Dyer said. (In September, she filed a $10 million lawsuit against Tiller’s parents.)
The day MaKayla was shot, Dyer was the first one out the door. She saw her daughter on the ground: her plump cheeks, her big brown eyes, her dirty-blond hair.
Later, unable to restrain herself, Dyer punched through one of the Tillers’ windows with her bare fist.
Now, at the restaurant table, she examined her hand. The cuts had healed, and the tips of her fingernails were painted green.
Mike Spies ( @MikeSpiesNYC ) is a staff writer at the Trace.
This article was first published by the Trace, an independent, nonprofit media organization dedicated to expanding coverage of guns in the United States. The Trace believes that this country’s rates of firearm-related deaths and injuries are far too high. But the Trace is focused on a second, related problem. There is a relative shortage of information on the issue, a shortage caused in part by the gun lobby’s efforts to squash gun violence research and limit law enforcement data.