A few months ago, I was scrolling down my Facebook feed when I noticed a news report about a child finding a loaded gun left out by a grandparent. The usual emotions coursed through my body—anger, sadness, anxiety, empathy—and my heart went out to the child’s mother even though she was a stranger. Vivid images of stark hospital rooms, beeping medical equipment, doctors, and blood flashed before my eyes, and in that split second I journeyed back in time. I know all too well how an unintentional shooting can affect a family. I’ve been that mother whose child found a loaded gun at the grandparents’ house.
On April 5, 2002, my two young boys, Eli (4) and Ethan (1), traveled with their father to visit his mother in Louisville, Kentucky. Their father and I had separated, and he wanted to take the children to spend some time with his mother. When he arrived at the house, his mother and stepfather were not there, so he used his key and went inside.
At some point, Eli went in search of children’s books that were left on the headboard of a bed while his father changed Ethan’s diaper. Lying on top of the books was a handgun. Though he had been told to never touch a gun and to alert an adult if he found one, Eli was curious—as children are—and picked the gun up. The weight of the gun was more than his chubby, 4-year-old hands could manage, and as he turned the gun around to search for a “missile,” his fingers slipped and hit the trigger. One bullet. One second. That was all it took to alter my child’s life forever.
I was notified by phone that there had been an accident and that I needed to hurry to Louisville. The two-hour drive seemed to take twice as long, and I was a bundle of nerves by the time I reached the children’s hospital. I was expecting a broken bone or a bad cut. I never even considered the possibility of a gunshot wound. I was greeted by police officers and a chaplain, who explained to me that my child, my sweet baby boy, had shot himself in the head with an unlocked gun that had been left out by his grandmother and stepgrandfather.
I crumbled. I saw red and lunged for the person responsible for my child’s injuries without even knowing how severe the injuries were. All I knew was that my little boy with the white-blonde curls was having emergency neurosurgery to try to remove bone fragments from his brain. I knew in that moment that lives were forever changed and I would never be able to forgive the negligent people who were responsible for my child’s pain.
We live in a gun culture in the United States. Every single day, when we turn on our televisions or radios or log on to social media, we see news reports of shootings. Mass shootings, domestic violence shootings, suicides, random shootings, and “accidental” shootings. According to the police, my son’s case fell into the “accidental” category. When I questioned this, I was informed that it had been labeled a self-inflicted gunshot wound. How could the police label what happened to my son an accident? It was completely preventable! Add to that, he was only 4 years old!
I was also told that I would not be able to press charges as Kentucky had no laws regarding these “accidental” shootings. Again, I was shocked by this news. Not only did they put the blame on my child, but the responsible parties—the gun owners—walked away without any punishment. They even had their guns returned to them. Meanwhile, my baby boy was enduring pain and swelling, an eye removal, a craniotomy, and a lobectomy. He was in a medicated coma for a few days. He was in ICU for weeks. He almost didn’t make it.
What happened to my son was completely preventable. He had been taught to respect guns and to alert an adult. The negligent gun owners left a loaded handgun, with the safety off and no trigger lock in place, lying in an area where they kept children’s playthings. This was my son’s grandmother’s home. He should have been safe in his grandmother’s home, but he wasn’t. I never thought to ask about guns being out where my children could access them—probably because I assumed that people with common sense would keep their guns out of reach of children. Clearly, I was wrong. This was not a stranger’s home or a friend’s home. This was someone we knew! My world was not as safe as I had thought that it was. Why us? It should never have happened to us! But it did. And it can happen to you, too.
It is a proven fact that children who live in homes where guns are present are more likely to be affected by gun violence. It doesn’t matter if these children are taught how to properly handle a gun or to respect them and leave them alone because children are curious. And every parent knows that children do not always listen. But children are not to blame because every gun that passes through the hands of a child must first pass through the hands of an adult. These so-called “accidental” shootings are NOT accidents! If gun owners would act responsibly and keep their guns unloaded and locked up, these unintentional shootings would not occur.
Over 200 children have been injured in unintentional shootings this year, and the year is not over. How many children have to die before people open their eyes and ears? How many parents have to go through what I went through? No mother should have to sign papers for a doctor to remove her 4-year-old son’s eye or part of his brain, but because of negligent gun owners I had to do just that. I had to watch my happy, confident child withdraw into a dark depression and suffer from years of bullying because he looked different. He couldn’t play sports or go on carnival rides, and it seemed like he was always on the outside looking in. He was different—forever changed because of the irresponsible actions of another.
My son is 19 years old now and in college. He still struggles with opening up to others and lacks confidence in himself, but over the years he has slowly accepted the things that he could not change. He no longer speaks with his grandmother and does not want a relationship with her. His feelings for his father are private, but I know that he feels some anger. As for me, I became a very protective mother. If my children want to visit a friend, I ask about guns in the friend’s home. It’s not an easy question to ask, but it has to be done.
I also found my voice, and now I advocate for commonsense gun laws, universal background checks, and child access prevention laws. These “accidents” are completely preventable, and I will continue to fight until every gun owner acts responsibly and locks up their guns. Don’t be like me and assume that this type of incident could never happen to you. My son and I are proof that it can happen to anyone, and proof that even a relative’s home—a safe space—isn’t always safe. #AlwaysAsk