(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On Monday, April 8, Courtney Kelly’s Hyundai Elantra failed. Kelly had just gotten all three kids packed into their car seats in the back. Millie, 6, was on the passenger side. Maddox, 4, was on the driver’s side. Lucas, 2, was strapped in the middle. It was about 5:45 p.m. They were on their way to Maddox’s baseball practice. With the children settled, Kelly was poised to pull out of her driveway on Laurelcrest Lane in Dallas, Georgia. The car wouldn’t start.
Kelly got out to investigate. She heard the gunshot soon after. The bullet, a Hornaday .380, entered Millie’s right eye at close range and exited the back of her skull. After barreling through Millie’s brain, spreading matter across the back of the car, the bullet still possessed enough force to break the rear window. A spent shell casing was later found on the driveway.
Neighbors, followed by law enforcement officers and emergency medical professionals, rushed to help. Millie was transported by ambulance to a local hospital. She died on April 10.
The following day, Paulding County Sheriff Gary Gulledge announced that no criminal charges would be filed. The decision, posted on the sheriff’s Facebook page, generated some minor controversy. It doesn’t take much for a 4-year-old boy to open an automobile’s console between the two front seats, retrieve a loaded semiautomatic pistol inside, pivot and pull the trigger. Making the child’s task so easy was surely evidence of “blatant negligence,” one Facebook commenter said.
Yet the sheriff’s contrary view is hardly uncommon. Given the permanent trauma visited on the family, a penalty well beyond the reach of the law, police and prosecutors are often reluctant to add to an already unbearable burden.
Besides, when you look at the totality of the evidence, including the logic that drives the gun laws of Georgia, and the gun culture that shapes the attitudes and behavior of many citizens, it’s clear that no one was responsible.
A Safe Community
Dallas, Georgia, an exurb of Atlanta, had a population under 12,000 in the 2010 census. It’s been growing rapidly since. Laurelcrest is one of the few streets threading the Park at Cedarcrest, which is near the end of its three-phase development. It features four-bedroom homes with two-and-a-half baths, ranging in price from $250,000 to $300,000. Just downhill from Laurelcrest Lane is the development’s large pool, tennis courts and basketball court for residents and guests.
The Kelly home appeared unoccupied when I visited Dallas in June.(2)
I had telephoned Sergeant Ashley Henson, spokesman for the sheriff’s department, some weeks before to ask why Courtney Kelly had kept a loaded firearm in her car. “She just kept it for general safety and security,” he said. Did deputies specifically ask why she kept the gun? And where? “The question was asked,” Henson replied. “She kept it in the car.”
Detective Kaitlin Huffman of the Paulding Sheriff’s Crimes Against Children Unit filed a report stating that “There was no criminal intent from the family or the 4-year-old juvenile brother. The family had safety precautions in place at the time of the incident.”
I emailed Henson about that: “What ‘safety precautions’ did the family have ‘in place’?”
“I believe what they meant was that the gun was not laying out in the open and that it was secured in the center console,” he replied.
“How was it ‘secured’ in the console?” I asked.
“What they are saying is that it was inside the console and not laying on the seat or anywhere else in the vehicle.”
Firearm injury is the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. for children under age 18. Kids are both victims and perpetrators — sometimes simultaneously. Since 2015, there have been more than 1,500 shootings by children.
“These are far more common than people realize,” said Katherine Hoops, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University. Shootings are also likely to be undercounted. “Data collection is imperfect at best on fatal injuries,” Hoops said, “and on non-fatal injuries it’s abysmal.”
Stories of children shooting themselves or others are sufficiently frequent that they rarely generate lengthy or lasting news coverage outside of a mass attack.
In June, a 2-year-old in Greenville, South Carolina, fished a gun out of his grandmother’s purse and died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. A 5-year-old boy in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, found a gun and killed himself in the living room. In May, an 11-year-old in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, shot and killed his 9-year-old brother. That same month, a 7-year-old in Spartanburg, South Carolina, took a gun from her father’s gym bag and killed her 4-year-old sister.
‘We Are on Our Own’
It’s an eight-mile drive from the Kelly house to the site of another child shooting in the same Georgia town. In 2016, a 3-year-old boy took a Ruger semiautomatic pistol from his father’s backpack and shot himself in the chest. He didn’t survive. No charges were filed.
Journalists, perhaps mimicking law enforcement officials, resist assigning agency to small shooters. Guns are said to have fired “accidentally” even when they were fired quite intentionally, albeit by children with no capacity to gauge the consequences. “The pistol discharged,” is a typical news media construct when the finger pulling the trigger is small.
“We want to remind everyone to keep their firearms unloaded and secured in an area away from children to ensure that this never happens again,” Sheriff Gulledge said after Millie Kelly’s death was confirmed.
A locked-up gun deters criminals as well as children. An Atlanta police sergeant told The Trace, “Most of our criminals, they go out each and every night hunting for guns, and the easiest way to get them is out of people’s cars.”
Related: U.S. Needs Safe Gun Storage Laws
The cars of Paulding County supply criminals, as well. “We do have firearms that are stolen out of vehicles,” Sergeant Henson said. “We had a rash a little while back where they were hitting fire stations,” stealing guns from the cars of local firefighters.
Two-thirds of gun owners cite “protection” as a major reason for gun possession. Protection from inadvertent shootings, however, is not what many have in mind. Instead, gun purchases and possession are largely driven by fear — often of a general nature, the fear of “a diffuse threat of a dangerous world,” as one research paper defined it.
With hunting in steady decline and sport-shooting a niche hobby, the gun industry relies on fear to propel sales. Here’s how longtime National Rifle Association leader Wayne LaPierre makes a pitch:
We know, in the world that surrounds us, there are terrorists and home invaders and drug cartels and carjackers and knock-out gamers and rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping-mall killers, road-rage killers, and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids, or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse the society that sustains us all. I ask you: Do you trust this government to protect you? We are on our own.
LaPierre delivered this riff in 2014, when the rate of violent crime in the U.S. hit a 45-year low.
Much local television news, which relishes depictions of violence, reinforces the NRA’s theme of chaos. Conservative politicians, tied to the NRA by political partisanship, campaign dollars, ideology and shared culture, have also advanced the NRA’s diagnosis of mayhem. President Donald Trump’s 2017 inaugural address was a dystopian homage to “American carnage.”
More important, conservative politicians have endorsed the gun industry’s domestic arms race. Georgia has been at the vanguard of the “guns everywhere” movement. In recent years, the state legislature has passed numerous laws allowing citizens to be armed at all times — not only in automobiles but at church, at school, while shopping, even in bars.
With a readily obtainable weapons-carry license, you can carry a handgun in public in Georgia either concealed or openly. If you’re not a felon or otherwise prohibited person, you need no license at all to keep a gun in your home or automobile, or to carry a rifle, including an AR-15, openly. Proficiency, or even rudimentary knowledge of firearms operations or safety, is not required.
The quest to normalize extreme gun culture, militarize domestic life and amateurize gun possession encourages guns in purses and backpacks and gym bags and auto consoles. In 2014, an Idaho mother was shot dead in a Walmart by her 2-year-old son, who had pulled the gun from his mother’s purse. Her father-in-law described the deceased mother as “not the least bit irresponsible.”
‘See My Gun?’
More guns visible in the public square generate demand for more guns for self-protection.
In 2014, frightened parents in Forsyth County, north of Atlanta, called the police when an armed man showed up at a children’s baseball game. A parent told an Atlanta television station: “He’s just walking around [saying] ‘See my gun? Look, I got a gun and there’s nothing you can do about it.’”
When police responded to 911 calls, they informed the parents that the armed man was correct. Under Georgia law, anyone is free to command public space with a gun. The only recourse for targets of intimidation is to arm themselves in turn, with hopes of being able to deploy violence in time to preempt violence. It’s a fraught cycle.
Dallas has had similar experience. “We had a young man that was carrying a .22 rifle slung on his back at our courthouse, not in the courthouse because that’s a secure area, but in the common areas in front of the courthouse,” Sergeant Henson recalled during an interview in his office. “A lot of people were alarmed.”
Google Maps shows eight gun shops within about 20 minutes’ drive of Laurelcrest Lane. At the local Kroger supermarket, patrons occasionally carry firearms openly. An adjacent gun shop shared signage with Just Kiddin, a haircutting “Salon 4 Kids.”
The linkage of guns and kids is more than happenstance. The NRA has long maintained its Eddie Eagle program to acculturate youth to firearms. In 2013, when a 5-year-old in Kentucky shot his 2-year-old sister dead, the boy did so using his own gun. “It’s just one of those nightmares,” a Kentucky state trooper said of the shooting, “a quick thing that happens when you turn your back.”
To keep firearms out of children’s reach, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that a gun be stored, unloaded, in a locked device. Ammunition should be stored, locked, in a separate device. State laws regulating safe storage or child access vary widely; they are generally lax. Only Massachusetts has a law requiring guns to be secured in a locked container or equipped with a tamper-resistant lock or safety device.
But to counter the most vicious threats — road-rage killers, shopping-mall killers, home invaders, rapers and killers who scheme and destroy — many gun owners prefer not to lock a gun away where it might prove difficult to access in a moment of existential peril. Instead, the firearm must be perpetually loaded, ready, accessible.
According to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey of 3,243 adults, about one-third of Americans with children younger than 18 have a gun in their household, including 34 percent of families with children under 12. Researchers analyzing a 2015 survey of 3,949 adults concluded that 4.6 million American children live in homes in which at least one firearm is stored loaded and unlocked. Later today, or perhaps early tomorrow, one of them will pull the trigger.
By the time Detective Huffman arrived at the Kelly home, Millie was on her way to the hospital accompanied by her father, Andrew. Courtney Kelly, Huffman’s report states, remained at the house. “She was very distraught, crying, on her knees in the front yard and her clothes were visibly covered in blood,” Huffman reported.
Shannon Lawhon, a gun safety activist, empathizes with Kelly. “That mom was trying to protect her kids, and I hurt for her,” she said. “You’re kind of told that owning a firearm is going to be an equalizer, right? And keep you safe.”
Lawhon was sitting in her backyard on the outskirts of Athens, Georgia. A stay-at-home mother, she grew up in a gun-owning family in Oklahoma and South Carolina. She owns a gun now. Her brother, she said, is a licensed firearms instructor.
Lawhon joined the gun-safety group Moms Demand Action(3)
“I think when you take that fear out of the picture and you think about it logically, you can realize that the instance of maybe being carjacked or the victim of a home invasion is pretty low,” she said. “When you have an unsecured firearm in a car or a home every day, you have a risk every single day. You have a risk every single day.”
A growing body of research supports Lawhon’s emphasis. States with more guns produce more gun violence. Residents of homes with guns are more likely to be a victim of a gun-related tragedy than to prevent one. Even as violent crime in the U.S. has plummeted over the past quarter century, U.S. gun deaths remain a high-volume outlier among peer nations.
“It’s the schizophrenia of America,” said Frank Eppes, a gun owner and lawyer in Greenville, South Carolina, who has represented parents in child shooting cases. “The illusion that people have that they are protecting themselves with a loaded gun is just that — an illusion.”
It’s an illusion promoted at the highest levels of American government, and throughout Georgia. In the context of her time and place, Courtney Kelly was far from negligent. In fact, she did everything right.
Georgia requires testing and licensing of all drivers, and the federal government requires safety car seats for small children. Kelly was in full compliance. She was similarly in compliance with all state firearms laws. Georgia requires no testing, permitting, safeguards or paperwork to keep a loaded semiautomatic pistol in a car. It does not require firearms to be stored safely, nor does it necessarily penalize an adult who stores a firearm where a child subsequently gains access to it.
Republican State Representative Rick Jasperse, the author of Georgia’s 2014 “guns everywhere” bill, who has an A+ rating from the NRA, explained the need for his law in language less ghoulish than LaPierre’s. But his message is the same. “We live in a dangerous world,” he said, “and while I cannot begin to explain the reasons someone might seek to take the life of another, I want wholeheartedly that Georgians, should they choose to take responsibility for the safety of themselves and their families, [to] have that option.”
Courtney Kelly chose to take responsibility for the safety of herself and her family. She behaved in a way that state leaders not only condoned, but encouraged.
And what was any such mother to do under the circumstances? Had she taken the gun with her when she got out of the car, what was she to do with it? Open the hood with one hand while holding the gun in the other? Hardly practical, or safe.
Should she have put the gun down on the driveway? The whole point of the gun is to ward off home invaders, drug cartels, carjackers and the rest, who could approach from anywhere, at any time. Small children, too, can scuttle out of cars and find things on the ground.
Perhaps she could’ve holstered the gun when she got out, to keep it close as she worked on her car in her driveway. But if you click the right internet link, here, you can watch a video of a boy sneak up on a man and steal the gun right out of his holster, while he’s working on his car, in his driveway.
In any case, Kelly had three kids under the age of 7. How many times does a mother want to take a gun in and out of a console, waving the tantalizing, forbidden object before eager eyes in the back seat? Better out of sight, out of mind, no?
Harried parents sometimes get distracted, momentarily lose focus. Yet neither Georgia laws, nor the gun culture that inspires them, can accommodate such ordinary human lapses without inviting tragedy.
A mother sought to protect her family with a readily accessible gun. A little boy, fascinated by the pistol, seized an opportunity to grab it. The pistol, a Taurus PT-738, performed its function flawlessly. Variously described as “micro” or “ultralight,” it weighs just 10.2 ounces and extends only 5.25 inches in length, enabling a small child to grasp, point and shoot with deadly accuracy. The Hornady .380 bullet delivered on its manufacturer’s promise to produce “controlled expansion and large, deep wound cavities” in the 6-year-old target.
The tragedy was linear. Gun logic often is not.
(1) I asked Amanda Dunavent, a family friend in Kennesaw, Georgia, who established a GoFundMe page for the Kellys after the shooting, if the Kellys would like to talk. She made it clear that they would not. Dunavent also declined to comment. Angela Crevar, the principal of The King’s Academy, the Christian school in Woodstock, Georgia, where Millie Kelly was a student, declined comment.I asked an elderly woman, who was walking a small dog a few houses down the street, whether the neighborhood is safe. She said it is. Sergeant Ashley Henson, the spokesman for the Paulding County Sheriff’s Department, concurred. “Obviously every, every place has crime, but we live in a fairly safe community,” he said when I met him in his office in June. Most local violence, he added, stems from domestic disputes.
(2) Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America is supported by Bloomberg LP founder Michael Bloomberg.
To contact the author of this story: Francis Wilkinson at firstname.lastname@example.org
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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