World·In Depth

Tiny trigger fingers: the deadly mix of children and guns in the U.S.

Between 2007 and 2014, 488 children died in gun-related incidents. Gun control groups keep calling for stricter laws while rights groups say there's no need. Families, meanwhile, grapple with guilt, grief and a "kaleidoscope of pain."

Accidental shootings create 'kaleidoscope of pain' for families, controversy about gun regulation

Matthew Dwyer, left, and his brother Taylor, on Matthew's first day of kindergarten in 2006. Taylor accidentally shot Matthew that December. At his funeral, Taylor tucked a dollar in Matthew's casket, so his brother could buy a drink in heaven. (Submitted by Daron Dwyer)

Matthew Dwyer's life lasted just five years, cut short by a bullet that was fired from a gun with a tiny finger on the trigger — his brother's.

Taylor, three years older, had picked up a small pistol his mother had left on her bedside table. She had put it there to feel safer overnight, while her husband Daron was out of town, and forgot to put it away.

It was early on a Friday morning. As Beth was drying her hair and Matthew brushing his teeth, Taylor pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. He pulled it again, and discharged a bullet that struck Matthew in the head, at close range.

"It's a kaleidoscope of pain really," Daron Dwyer says. "No matter how you turn that to try to adjust the focus and see it differently, the colours and the patterns never really form a shape or design."

He'd spent time talking to his son about gun safety, Dwyer says, but Taylor hadn't seen this one before, and likely thought it was a toy.

An instructor shows a student how to load a handgun during a Youth Handgun Safety Class in East Dundee, Ill., in 2015. (Jim Young/Reuters)

This family's story is not unique — almost every week it seems there is a similar tale. On June 25 in New Jersey, a six-year-old boy fatally shot his four-year-old brother. Two days before that, a four-year-old girl in Philadelphia fatally shot herself in the head. Six days earlier it was a four-year-old boy in a small Iowa town who did the same thing

Between 2007 and 2014, 488 children from birth to age 14 were killed in unintentional firearm incidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It doesn't have statistics for last year yet.

Inconsistent laws

Losing a child is devastating under any circumstances, but when it's because of the actions of another one of your children, it adds a whole other dimension to the tragedy, Dwyer says. Taylor, now 17, just graduated from high school. Overall he's doing well, but he recently told his father he still replays what happened that morning when he was eight every single day.

Dwyer's now ex-wife did not face charges for failing to store the gun away from a minor, but in North Carolina, where the family lives, she could have.

Lindsay Nichols, a lawyer with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, says about half of states have some version of a child access prevention (CAP) law, under which adults who give children unsupervised access to a firearm can be found criminally liable.

Their stringency, and the penalties involved, range considerably. In some states it's a crime for a minor to access a firearm whether it's fired or not. In others, there are consequences only if a child causes death or injury.

Smart guns 'a dumb idea'

Nichols says so-called smart guns (which use personalized biometric sensors, for example, or digital pass codes) would help prevent unintentional shootings. Manufacturers, however, have been reluctant to sell them, fearing the government would take guns without such safeguards off the market.

Erich Pratt, executive director of lobby group Gun Owners of America, opposes the kinds of stricter laws that Nichols wants.

"The so-called smart gun, we say, is a dumb idea," Pratt says. As for tighter gun-storage laws, he says people need and want their guns easily accessible during an emergency, otherwise, "you are going to have the opposite problem, where good people are going to die."

Jean Peters Baker, a Jackson County prosecutor, says too often gun deaths involving children are 'part of our consciousness.' (Sait Serkan Gurbuz/St. Joseph News-Press/The Associated Press)

Pratt knows the pain of losing a child: his own son died of drowning. All child deaths are tragic, he says, but ones caused by guns get disproportionate attention. "More children die choking on hot dogs ... This is just one more way of pushing the agenda to ban, limit, restrict or demonize firearms."

Pratt adds that it's "horrendous" to punish grieving parents with charges.

'This is not an accident'

Shaquille Kornegay, age two, was from Kansas City. This April she fatally shot herself with a handgun her father had left beside their bed.

Courtenay Block, 24, already had a history with police and was on probation. He has now been charged with second-degree murder, as well as drug and child neglect charges.

It wasn't the first time Shaquille was around her father's gun. According to officials there was an incident in a motel room in August 2015, during which the toddler and another child were exposed to drugs and a loaded weapon.

Shaquille Kornegay fatally shot herself with a handgun her father left beside the bed she was sleeping in this April. (kctv5.com)

Jean Peters Baker, the Jackson County prosecutor, has discretion in deciding whether to lay charges. In Block's case, she determined they were warranted in part because he had "a complete and utter disregard for the danger that he placed his daughter in.

"This is not an accident. This was a horrible, horrible result of some terrible, terrible parenting," she says.

Children are regularly being killed by guns, Baker says, and "too often this is part of our consciousness." She hopes that the murder charge against Block sends a message to gun owners to be more responsible.

Hope after tragedy

Daron Dwyer is trying to create something positive out of his son's death. He wants to carry on Matthew's energy and passion and "live wide open" attitude, and is creating a website, Matthew's Mission, to help link people with volunteer opportunities and fundraising efforts. 

For a long time Dwyer was focused on making sure Taylor and Beth were OK. It wasn't until two or three years ago that he started opening up to a friend about his own pain. He can now smile again when he thinks of Matthew, but the sadness and guilt are never far away. 

"You don't get over the death of a child."

Matthew Dwyer was five when he was accidentally shot and killed by his brother. His father says Matthew was a happy, energetic child who loved superheroes and giving hugs. (Submitted by Daron Dwyer)

He often wonders whether he spent enough time with Matthew on gun safety and if he had spent more, whether it would have made any difference. He tries not to dwell on that.

When asked about gun control measures like smart gun technology, he says laws can't prevent every accident or save every life, and that parent-child relationships are key to safety.

"That's where the gun control is, it's in the hands of the parents."  

But he also has a message for families like his who have suffered a great loss: "There is hope after tragedy."  

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