As our state lawmakers wring their hands and worry about whether Syrian refugees are a threat to our state’s security, unsecured firearms have taken the life of at least ten Tennessee children so far this year. A man who may or may not have been a lone wolf terrorist tragically shot and killed 5 servicemen in Chattanooga. Meanwhile, there have been at least 21 unintentional shootings involving children under the age of 18 in the Volunteer state. 21 lives forever changed and 10 of them taken – all because an adult chose to not lock up a gun. Recently, Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey advised Christians who are serious about their faith to arm themselves.
But who is going to protect our children from easily accessible guns? We have special hearings to address terrorist risk but we do absolutely nothing to address our shameful and growing list of kids killed because of irresponsible gun storage. Representative Glen Casada infamously called unintentional shootings “acts of God” and likened them to bicycle accidents. This kind of callous attitude should provide a clue as to the lack of concern being shown by our state legislators. A clue, perhaps, but certainly not any type of justification.
Over the weekend, 11-year-old Sienna Owens was found fatally shot in the back in the garage of a 12-year-old male classmate in Estill Springs, Tennessee. The 6th grader, whose nickname was “Smiley” was known for her cheerful demeanor and outgoing personality. She was a soccer player. Sienna was one of several students at the home of the 12-year-old alleged shooter. Sienna and the boy were friends as were their parents. Although authorities have so far declined to provide many details about the shooting, they have said that the gun was fired only once. But, once was all it took to take this young girl’s life and forever change the lives of the her family, the shooter, the shooter’s family, and the other kids who were witness to the tragedy.
She will never go to a homecoming dance, she’ll never graduate from high school or college, get a first job, get married, or be a mom. Christmas presents already bought for her will remain unopened.
At this point, police are not indicating whether this was an intentional or unintentional shooting. Given the circumstances, it seems likely it was an accident. The two attended school together and were reported to be friends. If so, it will be the NINTH unintentional shooting death of a child in Tennessee so far this year.
If it was intentional, it would be the second instance of a Tennessee child intentionally shooting another child. Just two months ago in White Pine, an 11-year-old boy shot and killed his 8-year-old neighbor MaKayla Dyer when she wouldn’t let him play with her puppy.
Additionally, so far in 2015, there have been 13 Tennessee children unintentionally injured with a gun. Some injuries require little medical attention while others have resulted in long-term disability. The difference between a fatality and an injury is often just centimeters and luck.
Although each of these shootings are different, there is one common denominator in each situation: irresponsible and negligent gun storage.
Every situation – every single one – involved a person who likely considered themselves a responsible gun owner leaving loaded, unlocked guns where children can access them.
Recently in Goodlettsville, a father who always kept his loaded gun nearby for protection was watching TV with his two young sons. The gun had a laser sight and the father was teasing the family cat with the laser. He set the gun down and left the room. The older boy picked up the gun and tried to operate the laser but instead, accidentally shot his little brother in the head, killing him.
Whether the victim was a toddler who found a gun and shot himself with it, whether the victim was a teen playing with a gun with a friend, whether the victim was a young kid who was unintentionally shot in the head by a sibling – the common denominator was a gun that was purchased by presumed responsible adult and then left accessible around children.
The White Pine shooting happened because the 11-year-old boy’s father chose to leave a loaded shotgun in a closet in a trailer full of children.
With younger children, the shootings are purely unintentional. A 2-year-old (the youngest victim in 2015) or 4-year-old have no real understanding of how a gun works. They are just curious and require that their caregivers be alert and keep them from danger. Too many parents in our state are failing their young children by being horribly irresponsible.
Older children should know better. Many of the tween and teen victims have been described as growing up around guns and being familiar with them. At least three of them were the children of law enforcement officers. They should have known better. But, they didn’t. Tweens and teens are not yet adults. They don’t often exercise good judgement and are susceptible to peer pressure and the desire to show off around friends. In most every case involving a tween or teen, they were with friends.
Parents who are gun owners must be responsible gun owners and keep their guns locked and away from kids. Always. Do not make assumptions when it comes to your child and your gun. Do not assume that they don’t know where you hide it. Do not assume that they would never touch it. Do not assume that they fully understand the tremendous responsibility of handling and using guns. No matter how much training you’ve given them or how comfortable you think they are around firearms, NEVER assume that they won’t make a foolish choice.
Tween and teen gun suicides are also a very real possibility in a home with easily accessible guns. A fight with a parent over chores, anxiety over a bad grade, or emotional turmoil over a breakup can lead a young person to seek a permanent solution to a very temporary problem.
The cruel irony of course is that most parents choose to own guns because they want to keep their families safe. This is an instinct any parent can understand. However, although the chances of needing a gun to defend your home are statistically low, the risk of unintentional or intentional shootings, domestic violence, and firearm suicide go up considerably in homes with guns.
To be clear, for many gun owning families in Tennessee, firearms are part of their culture. They enjoy target shooting together and share the tradition of hunting. These gun owners have every right to enjoy these activities and to choose to keep a gun in their home for self-protection. However, it is imperative – absolutely imperative – that gun owners store their guns responsibly, especially if they have children, or if kids of any age visit the home.
It is also imperative that parents become comfortable asking their children’s friends’ parents how they store their guns. You cannot ever assume that a home your child is visiting practices commonsense gun safety and keeps all guns safely stored and locked up. You may think that your child has been trained properly and knows gun safety. You may think your child would never play with a gun or that they would immediately leave a situation when a gun is produced. You might be right but you might be wrong. Too many Tennessee parents have been wrong this year. When it comes to kids and unsecured guns, are you really willing to bet their life they’ll do the right thing?
We have been tracking all the unintentional shootings reported by the media. Here’s a list of the most recent unintentional shooting deaths and injuries involving Tennessee children:
November 2015 – Goodlettsville
A father who always kept his loaded gun nearby for protection was watching TV with his two young sons. The gun had a laser sight and the father was teasing the family cat with the laser. He set the gun down and left the room. The older boy picked up the gun and tried to operate the laser but instead, accidentally shot his little brother in the head, killing him.
August 2015 – Murfreesboro
A 15-year-old popular football player was accidentally shot in the head at his home. He was life flighted and kept on life support. Four days later, he was declared brain dead.
August 2015 – Robertson County
The 15-year-old son of a Robertson County deputy was accidentally shot and killed. No word on who shot him, only that it was an accident. The boy’s father is the school resource officer at his high school.
June 2015 – Memphis
While his mother was at the store and his father was doing yard work, a 4-year-old found his father’s loaded gun and shot and killed himself with it.
November 2015 – Nashville
A 3-year-old child unintentionally shot himself in the arm with a gun. His father was in the kitchen when the child shot himself.
October 2015 – Zionville NC
A 13-year-old Tennessee boy was accidentally shot by another 13-year-old Tennessee boy in Zionville, NC, on the state line of North Carolina and Tennessee. The boy sustained a shotgun blast to the abdomen and was airlifted to Johnson City. No word on condition or how the boys had access to the gun.
August 2015 – Greeneville
In Greeneville, a 17-year-old practicing his “quick draw” skills accidentally shot himself in the leg. The teenager told deputies that he forgot to unload the revolver “and while drawing the weapon it discharged. The bullet struck his right leg just above the ankle. His injuries were minor.
August 2015 – Chattanooga
A developmentally disabled 13-year-old accidentally shot himself in the arm with a loaded gun he found in his home. Police found a total of three handguns including a 9mm handgun and a .22 caliber gun which were loaded. One of the guns was stolen.