A New Jersey man was recently sentenced to three years in prison for child endangerment. In 2013, Anthony Senatore’s then 4-year-old son found a loaded .22 caliber rifle beneath his father’s bed and shot his 6-year-old neighbor in the head. The boy died the next day.
A child dead, another forever haunted, two families devastated, and beyond the state where it happened, it garnered little attention. That’s because such stories, while disturbing, are so commonplace they’re now treated as routine. In January alone, a 3-year-old Tallahassee boy died after shooting himself in the face with his uncle’s gun; in Missouri, a 5-year-old, with his grandfather’s gun, shot his 9-month-old brother to death; a North Carolina man was shot in the neck by his 3-year-old grandson; a Minnesota teen, playing “cops and robbers” with his father’s gun, killed his younger brother; a 2-year-old Florida boy shot himself in the chest with a gun he found in the glove compartment of his family’s car. In the understatement of the year, the dead toddler’s grandfather said, “Guns and kids don’t mix.”
Yet guns, unlocked and loaded, keep ending up in the hands of kids, too often resulting in the death of the child, a family member, or a playmate. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of 62 children, age 14 and under, died each year in unintentional shootings between 2007 and 2011. “Innocents Lost,” a 2014 report by Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, found about one-third of American children live in homes with firearms; 13 percent of those homes have at least one gun that is loaded and unsecured or stored with ammunition.
I was raised in one of those homes.
The gun was in the bottom drawer of my father’s nightstand. I wasn’t looking for it; in fact, I had no idea there was a gun in the house. My father was neither a hunter nor firearms enthusiast. The dark gray .45 was likely a grim souvenir from his Army service during the Korean War. I doubt whether he even remembered having it.
Home alone one summer Saturday, I amused myself by rummaging through my parents’ things. The contents of my father’s dresser and nightstand, where I might find peppermint Life Savers or scatological prank gifts from his pals especially fascinated me. Reaching into the back of the drawer, my hand hit something cold and solid. I’d never seen a real gun up close before, but knew this wasn’t a toy. I picked it up, carefully keeping my finger off the trigger. It was heavy, and I liked the weight of it in my small hand. It frightened me, but curiosity trumped fear. I was especially careful not to point it at the large mirror over my mother’s dresser, the TV, or my head. Somehow, as a 12-year-old, I didn’t have the same concern about anyone else.
After flipping the switch I assumed was the safety and then removing the clip, I positioned myself in a window and pointed the gun at various passersby. My “targets” were random — a stray dog, a bus passenger, a woman walking to the mailbox. Because I had the safety on and the clip out, and because I thought I was just so damn clever, I was certain the gun wouldn’t somehow go off and blow away some unsuspecting pedestrian or motorist. Of course, for all I knew, there could have been a bullet in the chamber or the safety might have been unreliable on such an old gun.
It’s stunning to consider how easily I could have killed someone, shattering their loved ones, and leaving my own family in ruins. The simple fact is that an unsecured gun in a household with children is an invitation to tragedy. More than 25 states and the District of Columbia have laws that hold gun owners criminally liable if minors gain access to their guns. Yet in a nation where simple logic is no match for stubborn ideology when it comes to firearms, the laws vary, penalties are generally low, and too many states having nothing on the books at all. While citizens and legislators bicker over common-sense solutions for keeping guns away from children, there will be another headline about another child killed in an “accidental” shooting that could have — and should have — been prevented.
All those years ago, I was lucky. If the CDC average is any indication, more than 60 children this year won’t be.
Renee Graham is a writer in Boston.