On October 3, 2015, 8-year-old MaKayla Dyer and her sister were playing with their new puppy outside their mobile home when their 11-year-old neighbor called to them from inside his home, asking if he could play with the puppy. MaKayla refused, so the 11-year-old boy retrieved his father’s loaded shotgun, aimed it out the window and fired. MaKayla was struck in the chest, just below the heart. She died in the yard. Her obituary noted that she had celebrated her 8th birthday just three weeks before her life was taken. The 11-year-old boy was arrested, charged with first degree murder, convicted and sentenced to eight years in juvenile prison. He will remain incarcerated until his 19th birthday, according to court documents. The boy’s father, the individual responsible for leaving the loaded gun unsecured and accessible, was home at the time of the shooting and was in another room watching television. He was not charged and remains free. Reports indicate that he and his family have since moved out of state.
While it may seem surprising to some that the father, the person whose choice to leave a loaded gun unsecured led to the death of 8-year-old MaKayla, faced no charges, this is often the case. In Tennessee, it is not uncommon for the gun owning adult in these cases not to be charged. The first year MaKayla’s Law was filed and presented before the Senate Judiciary Committee, District Attorney Ray Whitley was called to testify. He spoke in favor of the bill as well, noting the difficulty in prosecuting reckless endangerment cases, the lack of legal guidance when it comes to filing charges in these cases, and the inconsistency of when or if charges are filed. General Whitley testified that “this would be a good bill to pass.”
Since March of 2016, the first time Tennessee legislators voted against passing MaKayla’s Law, there have been 60 shootings involving minor children and unsecured firearms. Twelve of the shooters were toddlers. Twenty-two of the unintentional shootings were fatal.
The vast majority of adult gun owners in Tennessee are law abiding and responsible. They understand that securing firearms and keeping them out of the wrong hands, especially the hands of children, is the most important responsibility a gun owner has. Safe storage of firearms is emphasized by organizations from the National Rifle Association to the National Shooting Sports Foundation to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Safe storage of firearms, keeping guns locked in a safe or with a trigger lock, can prevent not just unintentional shootings involving children, but also intentional shootings as well, such as in the case of MaKayla Dyer. Safe storage also can prevent children taking guns to school. And, safe storage of firearms can prevent teen and tween firearm suicides. Data shows that the number of tweens and teens taking their lives with guns is on the rise. According to numerous studies, adult and juvenile firearm suicides are unique in both their impulsivity and their lethality.
Unfortunately, these types of shootings are all too common in Tennessee. In a joint 2016 report by the Associated Press and USA Today, Tennessee was found to be fourth in the nation for unintentional shootings of children. Of all cities, Memphis led the country and Nashville was sixth. In 2017, Tennessee led to the entire country in shootings involving children and unsecured guns, according to data from the Children’s Firearm Safety Alliance. Once again, Memphis had more of these shootings than any other US city. Nashville tied with three other cities for fourth. Although there were fewer of these types of shootings in 2018, Tennessee still ranked fourth in the nation for kids pulling the trigger of irresponsibly stored guns.
Peer-reviewed research studies have looked at the relationship between child access prevention (CAP) laws and pediatric gun injuries and death. “Variability of child access prevention laws and pediatric firearm injuries”, published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery in 2018, reported an association in the strength CAP laws and pediatric gunshot injuries:
After adjusting for race, sex, age, and socioeconomic income quartile, strong child access prevention (CAP) laws were associated with a significant reduction in all, self-inflicted , and unintentional pediatric firearm injuries. Weak CAP laws, which only impose liability for reckless endangerment, were associated with an increased risk of all pediatric firearm injuries. The association of CAP laws on hospitalizations for pediatric firearm injuries differed greatly depending on whether a state had adopted a strong CAP law or a weak CAP law. Implementation of strong CAP laws by each state, which require safe storage of firearms, has the potential to significantly reduce pediatric firearm injuries.
Other studies have come to similar conclusions.
Once again, Safe Tennessee is recommending that our state pass “MaKayla’s Law”, legislation that would hold adult gun owners responsible if they leave a loaded gun unsecured accessible, and a child aged 13-years or younger fires the gun and injures or kills themselves or another person. What we propose is a simple amendment to the current statute pertaining to reckless endangerment to address child access prevention and eliminate ambiguity in the current child access prevention statute. It would not mandate how guns are to be stored in a home, but it would impose a penalty on the gun owner if a negligently-stored gun is used unintentionally or unintentionally to injure or kill another person.
It is important to note that this legislation would absolutely no impact whatsoever on the vast majority of responsible Tennessee gun owners who would never leave a loaded gun unsecured and accessible to children. This legislation would apply only to adult gun owners whose irresponsible decision to leave a loaded gun laying around results in an injury or death.
These shootings are not “accidents” – they are preventable tragedies. Laws exist not only to provide a consequence, but also to create a deterrent. DUI laws have resulted in fewer DUI accidents. Laws that require homeowners with pools to keep them fenced have resulted in fewer accidental drownings. Guns and children can co-exist. Children should be taught gun safety, but the onus to prevent these preventable shootings rests squarely on adults and they must be held accountable when their actions result in a child’s injury or death.
Read our full report on MaKayla’s Law here.