A little girl was at home when she found an unattended, loaded handgun. The gun fired, and she was hit in the head.
She was not the first Kansas City toddler to find a gun around the house, but she was the most recent victim.
Sha’Quille Kornegay, 2, died in April. Her father, 24-year-old Courtenay Block, faces multiple felony charges including second-degree murder in connection with her death.
Since 2013, at least six young children in Kansas City have shot themselves or someone else after finding a loaded firearm.
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There were at least seven other incidents last year across Missouri in which a child 6 or younger shot somebody, two of which were fatal. Kansas saw at least one fatal toddler shooting in 2015 — a year in which more Americans were killed by toddlers than by Islamic terrorists.
Young children’s access to loaded firearms has sparked national interest, powered in part by a Washington Post report that spotlighted Missouri as an unfortunate leader in toddler shootings.
Missouri registered six of the 58 toddler shootings reported nationwide in 2015.
The Post followed up this year, reporting that American toddlers had shot 23 people from January to May.
Those types of numbers have prompted calls for new laws, both nationally and in individual states, that would crack down on adults who leave loaded guns within a child’s reach. At the same time, others are calling for more training and use of safe-storage devices.
Like Sha’Quille, other Kansas City children have found loaded guns around the house:
▪ In January 2013, Trinity Ross, 4, was shot in the forehead by a 6-year-old relative who found a revolver under a jacket draped over a living room chair. Prosecutors decided not to file charges.
▪ That fall, a 3-year-old boy shot himself in the abdomen after finding a gun on his father’s bed. He survived.
▪ In January 2015, a 4-year-old boy found his father’s .38-caliber revolver and shot his 3-year-old sister in the abdomen; she survived. Jessie Ross III later pleaded guilty to second-degree child endangerment and was sentenced to 120 days in jail.
▪ Last July, a 3-year-old girl died after finding a gun and accidentally shooting herself.
▪ This January, a 4-year-old girl was shot after her grandmother slid a gun under the couch and left the room. The child survived. Taprill Barnett, 43, was charged with felony child endangerment and awaits trial.
Calls for laws
The Commonsense Gun Laws Partnership calls on states to pass laws that establish standards for negligent gun storage, make violations felonies and strip people convicted of failing to properly store a firearm of the right to own one.
The partnership was put together by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords’ Americans for Responsible Solutions. Giffords has become a gun-control advocate after she was wounded and six were killed in Tuscon, Ariz., in 2011.
Missouri has no law that specifically criminalizes adults who negligently leave guns where kids can find them or otherwise improperly store firearms, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, but there is a state statute penalizing those who carelessly sell or give a firearm to a minor. There is no Kansas statute that deals with children’s access to guns.
Federal law prevents licensed gun dealers from selling handguns to anyone younger than 21. Also, licensed gun dealers are required to provide a “secure gun storage or safety device” when selling a handgun.
In the most recent Missouri legislative session, Rep. Stacey Newman, a St. Louis County Democrat, proposed a bill to criminalize the failure to store “a readily available, deadly weapon” in a gun safe, with a lock and without ammunition when a child under 17 was around. The proposal, which was not passed, would have made it first-degree child endangerment to not secure firearms with kids in the house.
Newman said she filed the bill — written by Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker and St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce — to give prosecutors a tool to bring charges in cases of “quote, ‘accidental shootings.’ ” She questioned whether adults are being held responsible with the continued use of the term “accidental.”
“You couldn’t leave a gallon of bleach sitting in the middle of the floor and not be charged,” she said.
Baker said she was frustrated with deaths such as Sha’Quille’s because they were preventable with a tool as simple as a gun lock. Her office gives away free gun locks to anyone who asks.
“A trigger lock could have saved this little girl, and it might save the next,” she said. “It seems a very smell step to take” to increase safety.
Baker called on members of the public and state lawmakers to be more vocal about the need for gun owners to be held accountable for their actions.
“If the Missouri legislature is not willing to pass legislation that would encourage people to take greater responsibility, then all I can do is speak out,” she said.
Despite being heavily outnumbered in Missouri’s Republican-dominated legislature, Newman said she will refile her bill in December. She said she’s been working with lawmakers in 14 other states who have filed similar legislation, and while she was adamant that her bill would help, she wasn’t optimistic about its success.
Eighteen states have child-access prevention laws on the books, according to a paper co-authored by Jon Vernick, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.
Vernick said safe storage laws have saved lives and are not intended to infringe upon the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
“There has to be attention paid to these tragic incidents,” he said. “People have to realize how preventable they are, and ultimately, there has to be political will. These aren’t laws that take anyone’s gun away” or affect a person’s ability to buy a firearm.
Rosilyn Temple, executive director of the violence-prevention advocacy group Kansas City Mothers in Charge, said she would support a law that would require gun owners to take classes about safe storage procedures.
She said parents with young children did not need to keep guns around the house and “if they have a gun, they need to be sure that they do a proper procedure about having them locked away.”
Several firearms trainers in the Kansas City area said more laws were not the answer. The best way to ensure safety for curious and inexperienced toddlers was teaching adults how to responsibly store their guns, they said.
Ways to keep guns safe and secure include:
▪ Trigger locks, which are metal bolts fastened behind triggers to prevent them from being pulled. They can be locked by keys or combinations.
▪ Cable locks, which run through a gun’s barrel and prevent the gun’s action from firing.
▪ Gun safes, which come in all shapes, sizes and lock types. They place a solid barrier between a gun and the outside world.
▪ Separating firearms and ammunition.
Bruce Luedeman, who runs SafeShoot in Independence, said he thought “there may be a trend of toddlers getting ahold of firearms simply because there are more people acquiring firearms for self-defense.”
With that in mind, “it is absolutely critical that a caregiver, an adult, get the requisite safety training,” he said.
Luedeman said that what matters is a gun owner’s maturity and training, not more gun laws.
Others agreed, including TJ Nigro, owner of Target Time Defense in Blue Springs.
“I think we’ve got enough laws,” Nigro said. “I think we need more education.”
Jael Dawson, assistant manager at Target Time Defense, said loaded guns should be treated and stored the same as any tool.
“Firearms have a place and a purpose,” she said.
It’s critical for parents to model safe firearm-handling procedures, she said. She began teaching her daughters about firearm safety when they were toddlers, and when she cleaned her guns, she would explain the process to her kids if they wanted to watch.
Greg Downs, owner of Family Firearm Safety in Overland Park, said that guns and security measures should go hand in hand.
“You should purchase your chosen storage device before purchasing the firearm, or at the same time,” he said in an email. “If you cannot afford a suitable storage or locking device, then you cannot afford the firearm.”
National Rifle Association spokesman Lars Dalseide said in an email that safe gun storage “is a prime responsibility of every gun owner. Each must choose the proper balance of security, safety, ready access, price and other factors in the selection of firearm storage methods and devices.”
Data are kept on how often kids are fatal victims of gun violence, but information tracking cases of toddlers pulling triggers isn’t as readily available.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been rolling out the National Violent Death Reporting System, which aims to create a clearer picture of violent deaths in each state. The system has collected data from 32 states, including Kansas but not Missouri, and its proponents include David Hemenway, a Harvard professor of health policy and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.
Hemenway said studies have shown that while most children killed accidentally with firearms are killed by other children, toddlers are more likely to shoot themselves. He said it was unclear why that would be so.
He proposes remedies based on new technologies as they become available.
For example, guns might be made less toddler-friendly. Child-resistant packaging on aspirin bottles “incredibly reduced the problem” of kids overdosing on aspirin, he said, and child-proof guns would likewise reduce accidental toddler shootings.
Hemenway said some laws might have life-saving effects similar to the effect on auto fatalities as a result of requiring that cars be manufactured with seat belts and airbags. In the same way, guns might be required to have safeties that prevent firing when magazines are removed. And 25 to 30 years down the road, when technology has improved, it might be effective to institute a ban on the manufacture of new handguns that aren’t “smart guns” — guns that can only be fired by authorized users.
Will Schmitt: 816-234-4269, @ws_missouri