By RYAN J. FOLEY
TAMA, Iowa — Firearms instructor Joshua Casto had drilled gun safety into his children for years. They are a family of hunters, in a part of central Iowa where taking to the fields with rifle in hand is a way of life.
So what happened two days after Christmas in 2014 was widely considered a tragic and freak accident. As he prepared for a deer hunt, Casto’s teenage son stumbled. The muzzleloader he was carrying discharged, and the shot fatally struck his 12-year-old sister Liesel, a farm girl who loved horses.
But what followed was even more unusual. Over the next year, two more gun accidents left a teenage girl dead and a second severely wounded.
Residents of rural Tama County faced hard questions: Had their efforts to teach gun safety failed? Or was this just the sad price to be paid for a passion for firearms?
A review by The Associated Press and the USA TODAY Network revealed that more than 1,000 cases of accidental shootings involved minors over a 2½ year period that ended in June. The three accidental shootings involving minors in Tama County were highly unusual, according to the analysis, because they involved adolescent girls. The vast majority of victims are boys.
Tama County has mourned the deaths by hanging plaques and planting trees, but residents said they are not about to change their way of life and the importance they place on gun ownership. Membership in the Tama County Young Guns, a 4-H group that promotes gun safety and marksmanship, has gone up since the shootings.
“Being in a small rural area, it’s kind of second nature to students to be able to hunt and shoot guns,” said Mark Polich, principal at the public school where Liesel attended. “I think they ended up thinking, ‘Boy, this is an accident that occurred.’ Just like a car accident, you’re going to have some.”
The deaths touched nearly everyone in Tama, Toledo and Traer, the towns that make up the county of 17,000.
“I sit there looking at these things and say, this should not be happening,” said Tama County Attorney Brett Heeren, who has declined to file charges against anyone involved in the three cases. “That’s more than our fair share of these kinds of disasters.”
He wonders whether the gun safety ethic, drilled into him as a child, has weakened. But others around the county say the cases are nothing more than a string of bad luck, that deadly accidents are inevitable with so many guns in society even among largely responsible owners.
“It’s unfortunate and it’s a scar that every one of these families is going to have to live with the rest of their lives,” Tama County Sheriff Dennis Kucera said. “I don’t know how to even try to explain why these are happening. They were all adult-supervised. It’s hard to say who is the unsafe or careless one.”
Denise and Madison
Denise Kirchner was at her kitchen sink doing dishes days before Thanksgiving in 2015 when she heard a gunshot, then felt a sting in her leg.
What she saw next was terrifying: Her 14-year-old daughter Madison was bleeding profusely. She had been shot in the chest.
“My sister just actually got shot. We were cleaning guns,” Dylan Kirchner, 18, would tell a 911 dispatcher. “Please hurry. She’s having trouble breathing. Please hurry.”
Dylan had been trying to remove a bullet from the chamber of a .40-caliber handgun when it discharged, Toledo Police Chief Bob Kendall said. The bullet passed through Madison’s left breast, narrowly missing her spine but leaving six holes in her stomach and intestines. It then passed through Denise’s thigh before ending up in a cupboard.
Emergency responders rushed the daughter and mother to a hospital 20 miles away. Doctors told Denise that her daughter, a high school freshman who loves cats, would not survive the 17-minute flight to a children’s hospital in Des Moines and had to undergo surgery immediately.
“They were the worst three hours of my life,” recalls Denise Kirchner, whose own injuries were minor.
Madison spent 10 days in intensive care. Six months later, she suffers from an occasional stomach bleed, has trouble sleeping and is trying to catch up on the weeks of school she missed. But Kendall said it’s amazing she survived. The chief recently brought the girl the bullet, which she is considering putting on a necklace.
Dylan Kirchner is an experienced hunter who plans to compete on a sports shooting team at a local community college. But Denise said her son violated a cardinal safety rule her dad taught her growing up: When guns are being cleaned, nobody else should be in the room.
“You are living proof that obviously we weren’t careful enough,” Denise tells Madison, hugging her after she returns home from school.
“Oh my God,” Walter Hansen told an emergency dispatcher. “My daughter is dead. I shot her in the head.”
Samantha Hansen was an eighth-grader who liked to laugh and read books. Her father’s desperate pleas — “no baby, no, don’t die” — wouldn’t bring her back. She was dead at age 13.
It happened on Jan. 22. Her father later told the state Division of Criminal Investigation that he was taking a rifle out of a locked safe to show Samantha, who was interested in learning to shoot. But the rifle fell and discharged when he grabbed it, shooting her in the head. Hansen, a former intelligence analyst for the U.S. Army Reserve, said he didn’t know the gun was loaded.
An autopsy by the state medical examiner the next day ruled the death an accident. No charges were filed.
Police did not announce the teenager’s death, in part to respect the family’s privacy. Rumors spread through Tama as her classmates and relatives mourned their loss. Some wore purple wristbands that read, “Fly high Samantha.”
Walter Hansen, a gun rights advocate, declined to talk about his daughter’s death, saying he prefers “to remember her for who she was and not how she died.”
But on Facebook, he has kept up a steady stream of pro-gun rights commentary since the death. In March, he shared a post from the National Association for Gun Rights that read, “My Home is Not a Gun Free Zone.” Just weeks after his daughter’s death, he posted another message from a pro-gun group: “I am one of 3 percent of Americans who will never surrender my firearms, EVER.”
Liesel Casto had picked up a love for hunting and shooting from her father. Camouflage was her favorite color.
On Christmas Day 2014, she was thrilled to get a new rifle. Her mom posted a picture of her on Facebook: “Now she is ready for some serious hunting.”
Two days later, Liesel was preparing to hunt deer with her teenage brother using muzzleloaders, the type of gun that her father built for customers at his business, the Casto Armory. Joshua Casto was there to supervise his kids.
The gun went off, sending a shot through the open doors of their truck. It hit Liesel in the head, killing her instantly.
The girl’s death devastated her family and classmates at two schools she had attended, which hung plaques to commemorate her. She was depicted riding her horse, Sasha.
Joshua Casto said he couldn’t focus on running a business and closed the gun shop. He took months off as a firearms instructor and struggled to get out of bed some days. It was, he said, the only gun accident his family has experienced in decades of hunting and shooting.
On a recent weeknight, he taught members of the Young Guns how to safely shoot and hit targets on an outdoor range.
“It’s especially hard being a coach and teacher and instructor to have an accident in the family. I don’t imagine it’s any worse than somebody that taught their kid to drive and they went and rolled the vehicle next week and killed themselves,” he said. “So we just deal with it. I’m not going to stop driving a car, and I’m not going to stop hunting and shooting. She loved it. It was part of her.”