The Night My Toddler Almost Became a Gun Death Statistic

News & Politics

I grew up in rural South Carolina on 100 acres of farmland in a “neighborhood” of two houses: my own and my grandparent’s house next door. Yes, we had guns. As I child, I would stumble across my father’s rifles and shotguns in his closet upstairs, although I never touched them nor tried to find the bullets, which were stored separately. The idea of them always made me uncomfortable, a deadly presence in the house, even though they were only used to scare off stray dogs from our chickens or to kill a venomous snake. We were not a family of hunters, and when, as a teenager, I was peer-pressured into handling a firearm (because everyone who was anyone knew how to shoot), I spent an afternoon, after careful instruction from my father, shooting pears from our pear tree and was generally unimpressed.

Fast-forward 16 years later, and my family (husband, 7-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, Jack) dropped by my grandmother’s house unannounced. We were chatting, Jack was toddling around. Then he was reaching for a handgun on the end table next to my grandmother’s chair. Three adults lunged for it immediately, and I still have nightmares about what could happen when you fumble with a loaded gun in front of a child.

Yes, it was loaded, because “what use is an unloaded gun?” my grandmother said. This was uncharacteristic of her. We soon learned that she was in the early stages of Alzheimers, with all the anxiety and paranoia the disease so often brings with it. Needless to say, we removed the gun from her house (with more than a little prodding) and exchanged it with police-grade pepper spray as a nonlethal means of self-defense. “It’s better than a gun,” I told her, “because you don’t need perfect aim to incapacitate an attacker; just spray in his general direction.” (Years later, I would read about Seattle Pacific University student, Jon Mais, who used pepper spray to disarm a gunman, and remember this conversation.)

I was reminded of that night more recently after reading about Veronica Rutledge’s trip to an Idaho Walmart with her 2-year-old son. A loaded gun in a purse. A shopping cart with purse, gun and toddler. A distracted moment. And I realized that night at my grandmother’s could have played out another way: not with Jack shooting himself, but with Jack shooting one of us and living the rest of his life with consequences so unfairly thrust upon him—because it’s not fair for a 2-year-old child to die by gun negligence and it’s not fair for a 2-year-old child to live with the knowledge that he shot his mother because of gun negligence.

Veronica’s father-in-law, Terry Rutledge, has expressed anger at those who portray Veronica, who had taken classes and was licensed to carry, “as irresponsible.” In doing so, he misses a key point: it’s not just “irresponsible” gun owners who are ruining and losing lives to gun violence; the “responsible” gun owners are right there with them. When you walk through life with such a lethal weapon on or near you (Terry Rutledge says his son and daughter-in-law “carried one every day of their lives”) you run the inordinate risk of doing harm not only to yourself but also to others. Human beings are not designed to be on alert the way Rutledge-style gun enthusiasts need to be on alert (i.e. never a distracted moment).

Veronica was not a bad mother any more than the countless parents who have lost children to heatstroke, after inadvertently leaving them asleep in a car. Think of all the articles and public awareness campaigns about infant car death featured in 2014. A moment of distraction. A death. But cars are a necessity in a way guns aren’t. As Veronica’s friend Sheri Sandow explains, “She wasn’t carrying a gun because she felt unsafe. She was carrying a gun because she was raised around guns.” Veronica was carrying a gun because it was her hobby. And that’s what makes this so much more disconcerting, along with the knowledge that one person’s hobby can threaten the lives of so many others. Her 2-year-old son could have killed any number of Walmart shoppers as easily as he killed his mother.

I get that Veronica loved guns in a way I never have; that she had long-standing happy memories associated with them. But I think she loved her son more. Because any memory that has worth—hunting on a beautiful brisk day with people you love, for example—has worth not because of the gun but because of people you are with.

My toddler’s close call made me question a system in which an elderly woman with dementia can so easily buy a gun; a culture that’s okay with that; and most of all, the percentage of the population who believe that any introspection on the matter and push for change is an attempt to instigate a no-guns-for-anyone policy. (Note: Farmers and ranchers in Australia have guns. Collectors and target shooters and hunters in England have guns. But these countries have many more restrictions and much less gun violence than the U.S. does.)

As a mother, I want sensible gun reform that, if nothing else, will make owning a gun feel more like a privilege than a right, if only because we are more mindful of things that are earned than given. After Veronica’s death, her father-in-law said, “Odd as it may sound, we’re gun people.” Yes, Mr. Rutledge, that does sound odd. Maybe we should all redefine what we mean by gun people.

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