Kids with guns: Activists say Tennessee’s lax laws to blame for accidental shootings involving children

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Guns and kids are a deadly combination, and the issue always comes back with a question of who’s to blame.

During Thanksgiving weekend, an 11-year-old boy fatally shot himself in the head in South Memphis, joining a long list of children killed when they found an unsecured weapon belonging to an adult.

A police report said the boy’s aunt put the gun in her room under a mattress and told the kids not to go into the room.

District attorney Amy Weirich’s office decided not to charge the aunt.

“The gun was not in plain view; the gun was not out in the open for anybody to see; it was hidden,” Weirich said. “It was secured. They found it anyway, and a horrible unspeakable tragedy occurred. every tragedy is not a crime.”

The DA’s Offices decides if charges will be filed in these cases, but that worries members of the Safe Tennessee Project.

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Beth Joslin is executive director of Safe Tennessee, which is made up of citizens and doctors concerned about growing gun violence.

"The determination on whether or not to even file charges in a station in these incidents sometimes is sort of arbitrary," Joslin said.

Joslin and Safe Tennessee say these shootings are preventable.

"What happens is when people get careless, these, these tragedies happen," Joslin said.

Safe Tennessee wants uniform laws on what happens when guns aren't secured.

"The way the current laws written right now, there is a lot of gray area, and there's really nothing specific in the current statutes here in Tennessee that really apply to these types of shootings, so there is a lot of gray area," Joslin said.

Safe Tennessee has started tracking the frequency of kids finding unsecured weapons and using them on its website.

It found in Memphis alone, there were 22 cases in 2017. Nine resulted in deaths and 12 in injuries. In 2018, 12 incidents resulted in four deaths and eight injuries. And last year, there were 18 cases resulting in five deaths and 12 injuries.

"So we know there are most likely even more of these types of incidents than we even know of, and it's frustrating because there are really no government agencies at the state or federal level that are tracking them," Joslin said.

No one sees the up-close impact of these shootings like doctors at Le Bonheur Children's Hospital. The emergency room is often where the young victims end up.

"We have a social worker that sees every single patient that has a firearm injury, and so we really can tell why they're shot, and about half of these are accidental injuries, so it's either the patient, a family member or a friend that finds a firearm and accidentally discharges it," said Dr. Ragan Williams, who oversees Le Bonheur's emergency room.

Williams said getting families to safely store their firearms is one solution. But that's not all.

Another thing talked about nationally is child access prevention laws, which is where the adult who does not safely storage their gun can be charged with the crime. The State of Tennessee has weak child access prevention laws.

Williams said states with stronger laws have fewer firearm injuries and death. That's why she, other doctors and Safe Tennessee are pushing for a new accountability laws in Tennessee, particularly the passage of McKayla's Law.

"What it would do is it would hold adults responsible if their careless choice to leave an unsecured gun accessible to children results in a child under the age of 13 picking up the gun firing it and injuring or killing themselves or someone else with it," Joslin said.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Sara Kyle (D-Memphis) and first introduced in 2016, still hasn't passed. 

"We're not about taking guns away, that's what a lot of people sometimes think," Dr. Williams said. "It's not about that at all. It's just about you're going to have a firearm, you want to keep it safe."

But they are not giving up.

"So we will continue to bring this legislation every year until we were able to get it passed," Joslin said.

For an idea of the severity of this issue, Safe Tennessee said in 2017, Tennessee led the nation in shootings involving children with access to unsecured, negligently stored guns.

Memphis led the entire state.

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