KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Sha’Quille Kornegay, 2 years old, was buried in a pink coffin, her favorite doll by her side and a tiara strategically placed to hide the self-inflicted gunshot wound to her forehead.
She had been napping in bed with her father, Courtenay Block, late last month when she discovered the 9mm handgun he often kept under his pillow in his Kansas City, Mo., home. It was equipped with a laser sight that lit up like the red lights on her cousins’ sneakers. Block told police he woke to see Sha’Quille by his bed, bleeding and crying, the gun at her feet. A bullet had pierced her skull.
In a country with more than 30,000 annual gun deaths, the smallest fingers on the trigger belong to children like Sha’Quille.
During a single week in April, four toddlers — including Sha’Quille — shot and killed themselves, and a mother driving through Milwaukee was killed after her 2-year-old apparently picked up a gun that had slid out from under the driver’s seat. It was a brutal stretch, even by the standards of researchers who track these shootings.
Last year, at least 30 people were killed in accidental shootings in which the shooter was 5 or younger, according to Everytown For Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group that tracks these shootings, largely through news reports.
With shootings by preschoolers happening at a pace of about two per week, some of the victims were the youngsters’ parents or siblings, but in many cases the children ended up taking their own lives.
“You can’t call this a tragic accident,” said Jean Peters Baker, the prosecutor of Jackson County, Mo., who is overseeing the criminal case in Sha’Quille’s death. Her office charged Block, 24, with second-degree murder and child endangerment. “These are really preventable, and we’re not willing to prevent them.”
Gun control advocates say these deaths illustrate lethal gaps in gun safety laws. Some states require locked storage of guns or trigger locks to be sold with handguns. Others leave safety decisions largely to gun owners.
Twenty-seven states have laws that hold adults responsible for letting children have unsupervised access to guns, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, though experts say such measures have, at best, a small effect on reducing gun deaths. Massachusetts is the only state that requires gun owners to store their guns in a locked place, though it has not stopped youngsters there from accidentally killing themselves or other children.
Gun rights groups have long opposed these kinds of laws. They argue that trigger locks can fail, that mandatory storage can put a gun out of reach in an emergency, and that such measures infringe on Second Amendment rights.
In 2015, there were at least 278 unintentional shootings at the hands of young children and teenagers, according to Everytown’s database. During the week in April when Sha’Quille and the other children died, there were at least five other accidental shootings by children and teenagers. Alysee Defee, 13, was shot in the armpit with a 20-gauge shotgun she had used for turkey hunting in Floyd County, Ind. Zai Deshields, 4, pulled a handgun out of a backpack at her grandmother’s home in Arlington, Texas, and shot her uncle in the leg.
A child who accidentally pulls the trigger is most likely to be 3 years old, statistics show.
Holston Cole was 3, a boy crackling with energy who would wake before dawn, his pastor said. He loved singing “Jesus Loves Me” and bouncing inside the inflatable castle in his family’s front yard in Dallas, Ga.
About 7 a.m. on April 26, he found a .380-caliber semi-automatic pistol in his father’s backpack, according to investigators. The gun fired, and Holston’s panicked father, David, called 911. Even before a dispatcher could speak, David Cole wailed “No, no!” into the phone, according to a redacted recording.
Cole pleaded for his 3-year-old son to hold on until the ambulance could arrive: “Stay with me, Holston,” he can be heard saying on a 911 tape, his voice full of desperation. “Can you hear me? Daddy loves you. Holston. Holston, please. Please.”
Holston was pronounced dead that morning.
The local authorities have been weighing what can be a difficult decision for prosecutors and the police after these shootings: whether to charge a stricken parent or family member with a crime. While laws vary among states, experts said decisions about prosecution hinge on the specific details and circumstances of each shooting. What may be criminal neglect in one child’s death may be legally seen as a tragic mistake in another.
Officials with the Paulding County Sheriff’s Office have suggested that they expect Cole to face, at most, a charge of reckless conduct.
“Anything that we do, criminally speaking, is not going to hold a candle to the pain that this family feels,” said Sergeant Ashley Henson, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office. Henson said investigators had sensed early on that the shooting was accidental. “You want to be able to protect your family and take care of your family, but on the same hand, you’ve got to be safe with your weapons,” he said.
In Indianapolis, Kanisha Shelton would stay protectively near her 2-year-old son, Kiyan, watchful of the stray dogs known to roam through the neighborhood.
But on the evening of April 20, Shelton stepped away from the boy, leaving him in the kitchen while she was upstairs. She had placed her purse out of his reach on the kitchen counter, but when her phone started ringing, the boy apparently pushed a chair close to the counter, climbed onto it, and reached for the purse, according to an account from a cousin, John Pearson. There was a .380-caliber Bersa pistol inside the purse.
Just after 9 p.m., Shelton heard a loud bang and rushed downstairs. There, in the kitchen, she found Kiyan lying on the floor, bleeding from a gunshot wound to the chest. He was rushed to a local children’s hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
When a Louisiana toddler who shot himself was buried, his coffin was no bigger than a piece of carry-on luggage, and it was so light that two pallbearers easily carried it through the packed St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Bermuda, La.
His full name was Za’veon Amari Williams, but to his family in Natchitoches, the 3-year-old was known as Baby Zee. On April 22, he found a pistol and shot himself in the head, Detective John Greely of the Natchitoches Police Department said. When paramedics arrived, they found the mother cradling the boy and crying that he was not breathing, according to KSLA News 12.