Accidental shootings kill, injure children in Alaska

  • By Rachel D'oro
  • Saturday, October 15, 2016 10:28pm
  • News

ANCHORAGE — A state trooper’s young son died after he inadvertently shot himself with a gun he found in the house. A boy in a remote village died after he was shot by a gun mistaken for a toy. Another boy suffered a leg injury when his mother’s gun fell out of her holster, hit the pavement on its hammer and fired.

These are among 14 unintentional shootings in gun-friendly Alaska involving minors over a 2 1/2 -year period, according to a joint investigation by The Associated Press and the USA Today Network. The investigation used data collected nationwide by the nonpartisan research group, Gun Violence Archive, to examine more than 1,000 fatal and injury incidents from accidental shootings involving children under 18 between Jan. 1, 2014, through June of this year.

With Alaska’s small population — less than 740,000 — those 14 incidents propelled the state to the top nationally in accidental shooting incidents, with a rate per million people of nearly 19, trailed by Louisiana then South Dakota with rates just below 10. In comparison, the national rate was 3.39 incidents per million.

Nationwide, the shootings across the country led to the deaths of more than 320 minors and more than 30 adults, and injuries to almost 700 children and 78 adults. The review showed that fatal accidental shootings occur more often than federal statistics show.

In Alaska, five children died and another nine were injured.

Alaska is among the nation’s most pro-gun states, with some gun-ownership estimates as high as 60 percent. With guns viewed as daily tools for many in the state, perhaps that familiarity breeds a more casual attitude for some, which could explain Alaska’s high rate of accidental shootings, according to associate professors Sharon Chamard and Ron Everett with the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Justice Center. Chamard, however, also noted that combining the small base of incidents and the state’s small population can yield a “very variable rate.”

In Alaska, law-abiding adults don’t need special permits to carry concealed firearms or to carry them openly. And while some may view their weapons as protection against crime, a vast portion of gun owners throughout the state possess guns namely for hunting or for protection against Alaska’s plentiful wildlife, such as bears, Chamard said.

“The state is a very conservative-leaning state,” Chamard said. “It’s also a state with a tradition of veneration of independence and self-sufficiency. And I think when you kind of couple those two things together you get sort of a mentality that’s more pro-gun.”

The tragedies in the Far North state include:

— William Anderson, the 4-year-old son of a state trooper, was playing alone at his home in hub town of Bethel when he got ahold of a firearm and shot himself in late December of last year. Alaska State Troopers have declined to identify the father, who was not at home when the child died. Troopers say two adults and two other children were in the home when the child died, but no one was in the room when the privately owned gun went off.

— Seven-year-old Stanley Custer and other children were playing unsupervised inside a home in the tiny Inupiat Eskimo village of Shungnak in March 2015 when they found a pistol they thought was a toy. The pistol was fired and the bullet struck Custer in the head. He was taken to the village clinic and died before he could be transported for additional medical care.

— A 4-year-old boy and his family were getting out of their pickup truck in a Wasilla parking lot in February 2015 when his mother’s .357-caliber handgun fell out of its holster. The gun hit the pavement on its hammer and fired, striking the boy just above the knee. The bullet went through the boy’s leg and lodged in a building.

— Three-year-old Brayden Heath died after he found a gun and shot himself in his mother’s Anchorage home in August 2015. According to Anchorage TV station KTUU, the firearm reportedly was kept in a gun case on a futon.

The boy’s mother, Elizabeth Morin, was later charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. In late August, she pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide in a plea deal that dropped the manslaughter charge, according to KTUU. Morin is set to be sentenced in January.

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