Toddler who shot his gun-activist mom will pay a sad price

Mar 10, 2016 at 9:53 a.m. ET
Image: Getty Images/Laurent Hamels

News of the Florida mother who was shot in the back by her 4-year-old son spread quickly this week. Most of the commentary criticized the victim, gun rights advocate Jamie Gilt, for leaving an unsecured gun within reach of her son. No one seemed to notice one very prominent character in this story of schadenfreude: the little boy himself.

It's easy to focus on Gilt. She seems to have put herself in harm's way by having a loaded gun in her car (within reach of her child!), and her well-documented love of guns and bragging on social media about her son's enjoyment of target shooting makes her an even easier target. The Internet's verdict came down against her quickly and cruelly, and within hours of the news breaking, her gun rights Facebook page was inundated with comments criticizing her and calling her names. (The Facebook page has since been taken down.)

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While Gilt is ostensibly the victim in this story, she set the stage for her own victimization. The perpetrator was a little boy who was too young to understand the consequences of pulling the gun's trigger, but who will now have to live with the knowledge that he shot his mother for the rest of his life. Her son, not Gilt, is the real victim.

Unfortunately, the Gilts' story isn't unique. At least 265 children committed accidental shootings in 2015, and 83 of those shootings were fatal, according to research compiled by Everytown for Gun Safety. About 40 of the shootings were self-inflicted, and the majority were perpetrated by toddlers or teenagers who were playing with guns.

American children are 16 times more likely to be unintentionally killed by a gun than other children in similar countries, and much of the reason for this disparity is how their parents approach gun ownership. An estimated 1.7 million children live in homes where guns are stored loaded or not locked up, and these guns are much likelier to be involved in accidental shootings than in self-defense.

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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD] is often associated with combat veterans, but it can arise from any traumatic event. PTSD can include hyperarousal states, flashbacks and avoidant behaviors, along with co-morbid conditions such as depression and anxiety, and problems with substance abuse and self-harm. In young children, PTSD symptoms can be less obvious and more easily overlooked. Some children re-enact the trauma; for instance, by pretending to shoot someone over and over again.

For children and teens, risk factors for developing PTSD include the severity of the trauma, how their parents react to the trauma and how close the child is to the trauma. When children accidentally shoot their own friends or family members, they likely experience at least two of the risk factors.

Developing PTSD in childhood is particularly risky. Children who develop PTSD may suffer permanent genetic changes. As a result of these gene alterations, childhood trauma survivors may become dramatically more likely to develop PTSD from subsequent traumas in adulthood, and they are frequently unresponsive to traditional antidepressant medications and therapies.

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The Trace, a non-profit organization dedicated to covering guns, recently profiled Sean Smith, a young man who accidentally shot his sister dead in 1989 when he was 10 years old. His sister, Erin, was 8 years old when she died. Smith is now in his mid-30s, but he still remembers Erin mostly in her last moments, as blood poured from her chest and he tried to stop the bleeding with his hands. Smith, like many other sufferers of childhood trauma, has a lengthy history of addiction and self-sabotage. He blames himself for what happened to his sister, and he has never been able to recover from that guilt.

Twenty-eight states currently have laws against failing to properly store a gun. Gilt may face charges in her own shooting, and a 2000 study found that these laws have been associated with an average 17 percent decrease in accidental child gun deaths. Florida, which has one of the oldest and strictest laws, experienced a 51 percent decline in accidental child gun deaths after it was enacted. These laws act as deterrents by reminding parents to properly store their guns, but they by no means solve the problem completely.

The Gilt family was lucky. Gilt didn't die from her carelessness, and her son won't have to grapple with feeling responsible for her death. However, when officers arrived on the scene, they found the little boy unbuckled from his car seat. He likely saw his mother's wounds and understood to at least some extent that his behavior caused them. What he saw could have devastating and life-long consequences for him, even though he wasn't responsible for his mother's carelessness.

There is nothing funny or karmic about a little boy's pain, or our own inability to pass comprehensive gun control laws that would prevent tragedies like these from occurring in the first place. There is only another statistic to add to the growing number of children who have become unwitting and accidental shooters.

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