Last Saturday a three-year-old boy shot his father, Justin Reynolds, and mother, Monique Villescas, with one bullet at the motel they were staying at in Albuquerque, New Mexico. According to reports of the incident, the boy was rummaging in his mother's purse, looking for her iPad, when he fumbled over a 9mm handgun she had bought the day before. The gun discharged a shot into his father's ass, and the bullet ricocheted into the shoulder of his mother, who is eight months pregnant.
"I realized my girlfriend was bleeding," Reynolds told the BBC as he recalled the incident. "Then I sat down and realized I was shot too… I didn't know if [my son] had shot himself or not. He was shocked and crying. It was traumatizing."
The toddler's father has been released from the hospital, unharmed, and his mother appears to be set for a full recovery. The children (and dogs), however, have been removed into state custody while police investigate the incident, which may result in charges of felony negligence against the parents for leaving an armed and loaded firearm within their child's reach.
"On the kid's side, it's a horrible accident that happened," New York Daily News quoted Albuquerque Police Department officer Simon Drobik as saying. "But the parents are still culpable. They should have secured the gun."
This Albuquerque shooting has grabbed more attention than many (sadly common) incidents involving children and guns because it involves a child injuring an adult. More often than not the stories we read about the dangers of young children being exposed to loaded guns concern children injuring themselves or other children. Most of the existing data on guns and children—like the fact that one in ten accidental gun deaths are children, or the fact that well over 100 children die and 3,000 are injured by unintentional shootings in the US each year—likewise concerns the risk children pose to themselves and each other when they stumble upon untended firearms.
However over the past few months we've seen an increasing number of stories about toddlers injuring adults with unguarded weapons. In November 2014, for instance, a three-year-old shot and killed his mother in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with a gun left by the sofa while she was changing his young sister's diaper. Then, toward the end of December, a two-year-old in Hayden, Idaho accidentally shot his mother with a concealed weapon left in her purse.
At present it's unclear how common it is for a child to injure an adult with a gun, but the fact that 1.7 million children live in homes with unsecured firearms (nearly 40 percent of gun-owning homes with children) suggests that these incidents can't be entirely anomalous by sheer probability.
"We are just beginning to examine the data on this issue," Professor David Hemenway of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center told VICE. He pointed out that the best database on such deaths, the National Violent Death Reporting System, is difficult to navigate and has not been mined for this information, and cautioned that even when searched this database will only point out the number of deaths in 18 states, leaving out non-fatal injuries entirely.
Some shootings of adults by children are assigned intent and motive when perhaps they were entirely accidental, as in an August 2013 incident where an eight-year-old boy in Slaughter, Louisiana, shot his grandmother after playing Grand Theft Auto IV. In that case, there does not appear to have been much evidence that the violence of the video game inspired the shooting. Even the sheriff's incident report suggests that the child's relationship with his grandmother was normal and caring. So it's entirely possible that a number of accidental shootings of adults by young children have been misattributed, skewing our sense of the risk of such deaths or injuries.
Yet even if we don't know how common such incidents are, they're just another data point on the already worrying pile of evidence about the risks of exposing young children to guns.
Gun rights advocates promote the idea that accidents caused by children can be mitigated if we take greater steps to familiarize kids with gun safety at an early age and make efforts to better secure the firearms in our own homes. (There's some merit in this logic, given studies like one at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which found that 18 percent of gun-owning parents and 52 percent of non-gun-owning parents never talk to their children about gun safety.) Programs like the National Rifle Association-affiliated Eddie EagleGunSafe project, which has taught gun awareness to preschool through grade school children since 1988 by use of a friendly mascot, attempt to drill the message to never touch a gun without training into young children's heads. And countless time is spent instructing adults on how to not just hide, but also unload guns, separate them from their ammo, and lock them up anytime a child is around.
However, existing research suggests that for most toddlers these lessons are ineffective. And even children as young as one have the finger strength to exert seven pounds of pressure, which is all you need to pull a trigger, before they have the facility to understand safety instructions.
"There have been various studies looking at the Eddie Eagle program, among others," Hemenway told VICE. "And it doesn't seem to be effective even for children substantially older than age three."
"Children can recite what to do if they find a gun," Professor Raymond Miltenberger, a behavioral analyst at the University of South Florida in Tampa, told Parents Magazine in 2013. "[But they] still do the wrong thing when it counts."
In several cases, children injure responsible adults—not just those who leave their guns lying around—in situations that cannot be predicted or controlled, or that should be safe. In June 2013, a four-year-old boy in Arizona killed his father with a gun he found in the home of a family friend, who they were visiting unexpectedly and hadn't had time to secure his weapons. And in August 2014, a nine-year-old Arizona girl accidentally shot a qualified firing range instructor in the head with an uzi after he left her to operate the powerful gun on her own. (The recoil caused the gun to jump up, firing into the air and eventually hitting the instructor in the left side of his head.)
Hemenway and others believe that smart guns that can only be activated by their owners may be one of the few good solutions to stem such unintentional shootings. However even the most optimistic studies don't believe that such (not yet fully commercialized) tech can solve every accidental shooting case, even if it can significantly reduce the threat by adding barriers to harm.
All of this suggests that, not only will there always be a risk that gun owners' children will wind up injuring themselves or others, but that risk may be greater than we currently believe as we don't often count incidents like the one in Albuquerque. Adding yet another risk to profligate gun ownership may help to increase vigilance amongst those who do not as of yet do a great job securing their firearms or educating their children. Maybe between that and advances in gun personalization, we can reduce child-related gun accidents to a minimum. But as long as we keep guns, kids will always find a way to injure themselves, each other, and even adults with them.