Analysis: Accidental child shootings hit Michigan hard

Daylen Head loved video games.

He was playing one in his father's bedroom last November when his older sister entered the room and asked if he wanted to act the game out in real life, with a loaded sawed-off shotgun haphazardly hidden just feet away in a closet.

His sister, who was 11 at the time, grabbed the gun and waved it up and down before it discharged, striking her 9-year-old brother.

Daylen's 46-year-old father, Christopher Head, was elsewhere in the home when he heard the blast and found his son dead of a gunshot wound to the head in his Detroit home.

According to Detroit police, Head told investigators that he warned the children never to go in his closet.

But the warning wasn't enough.

Related: Gun accidents kill kids every other day

According to data compiled in a joint investigation by the Associated Press and USA TODAY Network, tragedies like Daylen's death play out repeatedly across the country. Curious toddlers find unsecured, loaded handguns in their homes and vehicles, and fatally shoot themselves and others. Teenagers, often showing off guns to their friends and siblings, end up shooting them instead.

In Michigan, there were 49 accidental shootings involving minors age 17 and under that resulted in death or injury between Jan. 1, 2014 and June 30, 2016, according to the AP and USA TODAY analysis. Among the 49 incidents, 17 children were killed, 29 children were injured and 3 adults were injured.

Accidental shootings happened in rural, suburban and urban areas throughout the state.  One out of three incidents — 16 total — took place in the city of Detroit.

Related: 2-year-old boy finds rifle in closet, wounds baby sister

"These deaths are highly preventable," Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said in an interview with the Free Press. "I can't really have influence over a drive-by shooting or a parent that beats their child to death or something like that, but I think we can have an  effect on these deaths that are completely preventable in many ways. ... If you have a gun in the home and you think your child doesn't know where it is or how it operates, you're living in a fantasy world."

In 2014, the latest year federal statistics are available for accidental shooting deaths, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 74 minors died from accidental discharges of firearms. USA Today and the AP found a total of 111 minors killed that same year, suggesting an undercount of approximately 33% based on their analysis.

An even larger undercount can be found among Michigan accidental shooting deaths involving minors in 2014.

Michigan's health department reports that one child died in 2014 from the accidental discharge of a firearm.  The AP and USA Today analysis found that seven Michigan children were killed in accidental shootings at the hands of another minor, an adult or themselves that year.

“The categorization of deaths, as to accident, suicide, homicide, or undetermined is, by law, a determination made by the medical examiner,” said Jennifer Eisner, a state health department spokeswoman. In an e-mail, Eisner explained the differences in counts may occur for a number of reasons including, "medical examiner's reports to law enforcement may be more complete or vary from what they reported on the death certificate relative to manner of death.”

Michigan is one of only 11 states nationwide with laws regarding firearm locking devices, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Michigan law prohibits licensed dealers from selling a firearm without a trigger lock, gun case or other storage container. Yet, Michigan’s rate of accidental shootings involving minors over the 2½-year time period is higher than the national rate, 5 incidents per million residents versus 3.4, respectively.

At a May news conference announcing charges in two separate shooting cases — one fatal and one non-fatal — of two Detroit children who shot themselves after finding unsecured guns in their homes, Worthy said child shootings are not only a crime issue, but a "public health issue" as well in Wayne County.

"I think it's gotten worse," Worthy said. "Within a month or two to three weeks after that press conference, we had more. ... I think we've had more than I've ever noticed before."

A majority of the accidental shootings in Michigan took place where children lived or at the home of a family member or friend.

Victims ranged in age from 2-17 but spiked at ages 3 and 4. Nearly one out of three children that were injured or killed by an accidental firearm discharge in Michigan since 2014 were either age 3 or 4.

In January 2014, a tragedy mirroring Daylen Head's death happened in Detroit when 4-year-old Jamel Witcher was shot and killed by his 4-year-old cousin after she found a rifle — loaded and not locked in a case — underneath a bed. The girl pointed the gun at Jamel and pulled the trigger, shooting him in the chest. The boy's grandparents and another man were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and other charges.

Worthy said at the time that she hoped the case sent "another resounding message that guns and unsupervised young children will court nothing but disaster."

And earlier this year, Frederick Davis, 65, and Patricia McNeal, 65, were charged in connection with the May 11 fatal shooting death of their granddaughter, 5-year-old Mariah Davis. Davis and McNeal were charged with one count of involuntary manslaughter, three counts of second-degree child abuse and one count each of felony firearm. Davis was also charged with felon in possession of a firearm.

The grandparents were babysitting Mariah and her brother, along with a neighbor's child, at their home in the 19700 block of Oakfield in Detroit when Mariah went into her grandparents' bedroom around midnight and retrieved a handgun from under a pillow.

Detroit police said two other children, a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old, also were upstairs but  unharmed. McNeal was downstairs cooking when Mariah took the gun into another room and shot herself in the neck. Davis went into the room and found the girl, lifeless on the bed.

Davis will be sentenced Nov. 3 and McNeal is set to return to court at the end of November for a competency exam, according to court documents.

In Daylen's case, Worthy charged his father, Christopher Head, with second-degree homicide, involuntary manslaughter, second-degree child abuse, use of a firearm in a felony, firearm possession by a felon and a "short-barreled shotgun" firearms charge. A jury convicted him on July 7 of all charges and he was sentenced July 25 to at least 25 years in prison.

During his trial, 36th District Judge Shannon Holmes said it’s not enough to tell children to stay away from a closet with a gun inside.

“The gun should never have been there," Holmes said.

Worthy said instead of being reactive to the issue, her office has been proactive in beginning the process of reaching out to the heads of local hospitals to work with pediatricians to educate parents on the responsibility of owning a gun in a home with children. Worthy said her office has also reached out to the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan to began to lay the groundwork for reaching out to various legislators about enacting more gun legislation.

"I don't think there's a person alive that wants to see these children killed by something that's entirely preventable," Worthy said. "We would like to charge less of these cases, we certainly don't want to see these cases."

Worthy said many of the individuals charged in Wayne County cases were licensed gun owners, but she said that doesn't make it any less of a crime.

"They can be held criminally responsible for improper storage issues and not taking the normal regular precautions you take if you have a dangerous weapon," Worthy said. "... Still the bottom line is the message has to be sent that your direct actions or inaction may be the cause of death for your child or grandchild or maybe the child next door."

(2016 © Detroit Free Press)


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