STANWOOD — The accidental shootings of three Western Washington children so far this year represent a statistical anomaly rather than a sudden burst of gun violence, according to legal experts and state data.
Jenna Carlile, of Camano Island, was the 7-year-old daughter of Marysville police officer Derek Carlile. Jenna and her younger siblings were alone in a van when one of them found a gun and fired it, fatally striking her.
On Wednesday, a Tacoma boy, 3, accidentally killed himself with a gun. Three weeks ago, a Bremerton girl, 8, was critically injured after being shot by a gun brought to school by a classmate.
Accidental shooting deaths involving children are rare in Snohomish County and statewide. The three recent instances involve unique, complex circumstances and differing legal implications.
When a child dies in an accidental shooting in Washington, adult gun owners are rarely charged with a crime, legal experts said. There is no specific criminal statute that spells out what should happen after a child finds a firearm and uses it to kill or injure themselves or someone else.
Between 2007 and 2010, there was one death per year in Washington involving the accidental shooting of a minor, according to state Department of Health data.
Of those cases, all but one involved victims who were under 5, state health communications director Tim Church said Wednesday.
In addition, the state reports an average of nine children and teenagers each year who are hospitalized with nonfatal accidental gunshot wounds. The data doesn’t include details about who fired the weapons or the circumstances of the shootings.
Even one shooting death of a child is too many because those deaths are preventable, Church said. “It’s tragic, no doubt,” he said, “but when you think of the thousands and thousands of children, hundreds of thousands of children, in our state, it’s rare for this to happen, thankfully.”
On Feb. 22, a 9-year-old boy brought a gun to his Bremerton elementary school, according to the Associated Press. The gun accidentally discharged in his backpack, and struck Amina Kocer-Bowman, 8, who nearly died from her injuries.
In that case, the boy’s mother and boyfriend have been charged with third-degree assault, a felony. That case also involves custody issues, family drug history and questions over why firearms were in a home where at least one adult could not possess weapons because of felony convictions.
The most recent shooting happened early Wednesday morning outside a Tacoma gas station.
Police say a 3-year-old boy climbed out of his car seat, found a gun and accidentally shot and killed himself inside a parked vehicle, according to The News Tribune in Tacoma. The boy and his 1-year-old sister were in the car. His mother and her boyfriend told police that the man had gotten out of the car to pump gas, and the boy’s mother went into the convenience store.
No charges had been filed in the Tacoma case as of early Wednesday evening.
The Snohomish County sheriff’s Major Crimes Unit continues to investigate Jenna Carlile’s death after Saturday’s shooting in Stanwood.
Detectives on Wednesday continued to withhold basic details about the shooting, including how many children were involved and whether the gun involved was her father’s police duty weapon or a privately owned firearm. It appears as if all the children who were in the car are too young to face criminal charges under state law, but that hasn’t been confirmed by police.
It is not clear how much the investigation is focusing on the actions of the girl’s parents.
“It’s not our job to determine legal consequences,” sheriff’s bureau chief Kevin Prentiss said Wednesday. “It’s our job to put together an accurate major investigation and turn it over to the prosecutor for review.”
Derek Carlile remains on paid administrative leave pending the results of the sheriff’s investigation. Marysville police also expect to conduct an internal investigation.
When a child in Washington finds a firearm, and someone is accidentally killed or injured as a result, the case rarely results in criminal charges for the adults responsible for the weapon, said John Strait, a criminal law professor at the Seattle University School of Law.
If a case leads to charges, it’s typically a gross misdemeanor, and based on evidence of negligence, Strait said.
In recent years, the Legislature has considered revising laws so felony charges can be brought against people who make it possible for children to obtain a firearm and kill themselves or others, he said. So far, that hasn’t happened. The loss of a child is considered a more significant blow to a parent than any criminal sanction.
“The whole idea of criminal law is to try to deter people from making bad decisions,” Strait said. “Well, most parents who have lost a child, the loss of a child is far more of a fear or a concern than the fact that you might get punished afterward.”
Prosecutors in some states have greater authority to file felony charges in such accidental shooting deaths, but that happens infrequently, and without consistency, Strait said.
In Snohomish County, a notorious accidental shooting of a child continues to get attention in the courts.
Richard Peters, 45, of Marysville, was charged with second-degree murder in the 2008 death of his 6-year-old daughter. He was convicted of manslaughter. The conviction was overturned in September and a new trial has been ordered.
Jurors found that Peters, who was drinking, was reckless and deliberately ignored the risks of handling a firearm around his daughter, Stormy. The first-grader was shot between the eyes and died at a Seattle hospital the next morning.
The Court of Appeals tossed out the conviction based on a faulty jury instruction.
Rikki King: 425-339-3449; firstname.lastname@example.org
Donations to help Jenna Carlile’s family with medical bills and burial costs can be deposited at any Opus Bank branch or mailed to Opus Bank, Jenna Carlile Fund, 815 State Ave., Marysville, WA., 98270.