WASHINGTON — Veronica Rutledge and her husband loved everything about guns. They practiced at shooting ranges. They hunted. And both of them, relatives and friends say, had permits to carry concealed firearms. Veronica typically left her Blackfoot, Idaho, home with her gun nestled at her side.
So on Christmas morning last week, her husband gave her a present he hoped would make her life more comfortable: a purse with a special pocket for a concealed weapon.
The day after Christmas, she took her new gift with her on a trip with her husband and her 2-year-old son. They headed hundreds of miles north to the end of a country road where Terry Rutledge, her husband's father, lived. The father-in-law learned of the new purse.
''It was designed for that purpose — to carry a concealed firearm,'' Rutledge said in an interview Tuesday night. ''And you had to unzip a compartment to find the handgun."
On Tuesday morning, that was exactly what Veronica Rutledge's son did — with the most tragic of outcomes. Veronica, 29, arrived at a nearby Walmart in Hayden with her three nieces and son, her gun ''zippered closed'' inside her new purse, her father-in-law said. Then, near the electronics section, the purse was left unattended for a moment.
''An inquisitive 2-year-old boy reached into the purse, unzipped the compartment, found the gun, and shot his mother in the head,'' Rutledge said. ''It's a terrible, terrible incident.''
The aftermath has been crushing, Rutledge said. His son went to the Walmart to collect his nieces and son, and no one now is sure what to say to the boy, who is not doing well.
''My son is terrible,'' Rutledge said. ''He has a 2-year-old boy right now who doesn't know where his mom is, and he'll have to explain why his mom isn't coming home. And then, later on his life, as he questions it more, he'll again have to explain what happened, so we'll have to relive this several times over.''
Rutledge isn't just sad — he's angry. Not at his grandson. Nor at his dead daughter-in-law, ''who didn't have a malicious fiber in her body,'' he said. He's angry at the people already using the accident as an excuse to grandstand on gun rights.
''They are painting Veronica as irresponsible, and that is not the case,'' he said. ''. . . I brought my son up around guns, and he has extensive experience shooting it. And Veronica had had handgun classes; they're both licensed to carry, and this wasn't just some purse she had thrown her gun into.''
The path Veronica Rutledge charted, friends and family say, was one of academics and small-town, country living. ''Hunting, being outdoors, and being with her son'' was what made her happiest, her friend Rhonda Ellis said. She was raised in northeast Idaho and always excelled at school, former high school classmate Kathleen Phelps said, recalling her as the "valedictorian of our class, very motivated, and the smartest person I know.''
She went on to graduate in 2010 from the University of Idaho with a chemistry degree, according to a commencement program. From there, she got a job at Battelle's Idaho National Laboratory and published several articles, one of which analyzed a method to absorb toxic waste discharged by burning nuclear fuel.
While away from the lab, she and her husband, whom she married in 2009, spent time shooting guns. ''She was just as comfortable at a camp ground or a gun range as she was in a classroom,'' close friend Sheri Sandow said in an interview. On Facebook, she showed an interest in the outdoors and the National Rifle Association.
''They carried one every day of their lives, and they shot extensively,'' Rutledge said. ''They loved it. Odd as it may sound, we are gun people.''
A lot of people in Idaho are. The state Legislature this year passed a bill that allows people to carry concealed guns onto state university campuses. And more than 85,000 people — 7 percent of the population — are licensed to carry concealed weapons, the Crime Prevention Research Center said.
So many locals didn't discern anything odd with a 29-year-old woman carrying a loaded gun into a Walmart during the holiday season.
Sandow said she often sees people with a gun cradled at their side. ''In Idaho. . . to see someone with a gun isn't bizarre. [Veronica] wasn't carrying a gun because she felt unsafe. She was carrying a gun because she was raised around guns. This was just a horrible accident.''