By Martha Bellisle
SEATTLE — Five teenage boys were making sandwiches at a friend’s house when a boy brought out his step-father’s shotgun. One of the teens didn’t believe it was real, so he grabbed it and pulled the trigger, fatally shooting his 13-year-old buddy in the chest.
Eddie Holmes was one of more than a dozen Washington state children who were injured or killed since 2014 when they or another child mishandled an unsecured firearm, according to an investigation by The Associated Press.
Across the nation, more than 1,000 children were killed or injured in accidental shootings from 2014 to June, according to cases documented by the Gun Violence Archives. That tally far exceeds federal estimates. Congress restricted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ability to conduct gun violence research, but the Washington Department of Health has continued to collect data on how many people in the state keep guns loaded and unlocked, as well as accidental shootings.
In 2015, about 259,000 Washington adults lived in a household with guns that were loaded and unlocked, according to an agency survey.
In 2014 alone, there was one death and six injuries resulting from accidental shootings of children younger than 18, the agency said. Those seven cases were among the 113 children killed or injured nationally in 2014.
In some cases, the gun owners faced criminal charges, but in other cases, no charges were filed.
“My son is dead, it was unintentional but there were no consequences,” said Eddie’s mother, Sandy Aponte. “I just don’t understand it.
“I miss him every day.”
Prosecutors say they have limited choices when it comes to filing charges in these cases. Washington state doesn’t require the safe storage of firearms and trying to prove that the gun owner acted recklessly or with criminal negligence is difficult, they say.
Some lawmakers have tried to pass a law requiring the safe storage of firearms in the home, but those efforts have repeatedly failed.
After an intentional shooting at Marysville Pilchuck High School in October 2014, Seattle Children’s Hospital began holding events to give away lock boxes and trigger locks for free, said Dr. Mark Del Beccaro, chief medical officer. They’ve held eight events and gave out more than 2,500 gun lock boxes and trigger locks so far. Then next one is scheduled for Oct. 29 in East Wenatchee.
“It’s a tragedy that’s preventable,” Del Beccaro said. “The data is clear both for accidental shootings and adolescent suicides. If guns are locked, those rates go down. That’s why we’re involved.”
It happens during playtime with deadly results:
•A curious 2-year-old in Seattle found a gun under a pillow in July and shot herself in the face.
•A 3-year-old Everett boy climbed onto his father’s dresser in 2014 and shot himself in the head with his dad’s Ruger .380 firearm.
•A 16-year-old was shot and killed by a bullet that accidently went through the kitchen wall in 2015.
•A 13-year-old was shot in the face when he and two other teens sneaked into the woods with a gun near Lakewood in 2015.
Eddie Holmes didn’t know the boy he and his friend visited that snowy February day in 2014, Aponte recalled. When the police arrived at her work to report that her son was dead, she was confused because she didn’t recognize the boy’s name. She later learned that the step-father stored several weapons in a lock box, but he kept the shotgun behind the headboard for self-defense, she said.
The stepson knew it was there and brought it out to show his buddies, according to police reports. His mother told police that he wasn’t supposed to have anyone in the house when the parents weren’t home and he wasn’t allowed to touch the guns.
“Kids are curious,” Aponte said. “That’s why it’s important for adults to make sure the guns are secure.”
Aponte has testified at the Legislature for a “safe storage” law and stands on the corner at gun shows with cardboard signs bearing Eddie’s photo and a warning that unlocked guns can kill.
The Washington Supreme Court set a limit on the use of the state’s felony third-degree assault statute for accidental shootings in a 2014 ruling. The case involved a man who left his loaded gun on a bedroom dresser and his girlfriend’s 9-year-old son put it in his backpack and brought it to the Armin Jahr Elementary School in Bremerton, Washington, on Feb. 22, 2012. It discharged as the boy rummaged through his pack and hit a classmate, who was critically injured.
The high court ruled that third-degree assault involves a person who “with criminal negligence” causes injury to another and the state failed to make the case that the gun owner’s habit of leaving loaded firearms around his house and accessible to children “caused” bodily harm.
Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist cited that case when asked why he didn’t charge the gun owner in the Eddie Holmes shooting. Charging the step-father required proving that he acted recklessly or with criminal negligence, Lindquist said. The parents had ordered the boy to stay away from the guns and the shotgun was hidden in their bedroom, he said.
“There simply was no applicable criminal charge that would be supported by the evidence that was available,” Lindquist said.
A Marysville police officer who left his handgun in a van with his children in 2012, and his 3-year-old son used it to accidentally fatally shoot his 7-year-old sister, was charged with manslaughter. The jury at his trial was unable to agree on whether he was criminally negligent.
“We want accountability where appropriate, but more than that we want to avoid these shootings,” Lindquist said. “Adults, especially parents, should be acutely aware of the dangers posed by guns in the hands of children. We must always handle and store guns responsibly.”
King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg said prosecutors are also limited when a child is hurt in an accidental shooting.
“When a child gains access to a firearm that does not result in death, prosecutors are left with the gross misdemeanor of reckless endangerment,” he said.
Satterberg said a “safe storage” law would help prevent accidents and gun crimes.
“The vast majority of guns used in crime in our state are stolen in burglaries or car prowls,” he said. “In addition to keeping guns out of the hands of children, a safe storage law, and the resulting public education campaign, might reduce the number of stolen guns floating around in the illicit stream of commerce that allows such easy access to disqualified people.”