The story has garnered national attention and ignited a firestorm of comments on social media; a 3-year-old shot his 18-month-old brother dead Tuesday with a handgun found at a neighbor’s Payson home.
Many questions remain unanswered and police say it will take them at least a week to complete their investigation and hand over findings to the Gila County Attorney’s Office, which will ultimately decide whether to file any criminal charges.
The boys reportedly went to a 78-year-old family friend’s apartment with their mother about noon so she could collect a box of food from the man, said Police Chief Don Engler. They had been there for 10 to 15 minutes as the man packed up a box, when a single shot was heard from neighbors that live in the two-story beige Pinecrest Apartment complex at 303 S. Ash St.
Moments later, the mother was found swaddling her infant in blankets near the doorway, crying out repeatedly for help.
Lyle Keller had just stepped out of his truck to deliver a newspaper to a nearby apartment when he heard the hysterical cries.
When he approached the doorway, the mother reached out and handed him a phone to call for help, her hands fumbling to hold a wrap against the child’s head. Keller said he saw an older man guide another child away from the scene, presumably the woman’s 3-year-old son.
Keller stayed on the phone with dispatch until they heard sirens approach.
“Someone hollered, “Here is the ambulance,” said Shirley Anderson, a Roundup courier who was out delivering papers with Keller.
Anderson watched as a woman walked out to the parking lot with what looked like a “pile of rags” and sit on the curb.
“Have you ever seen a ragdoll?” Anderson said. “I said ‘that baby is dead.’”
Paramedics collected the child and loaded it into the ambulance. The mother was taken in a separate vehicle.
“That howl,” Anderson said, “(the mother) was flat hysterical ... It was awful.”
Battalion Chief Jim Rasmussen said paramedics did not start CPR then because the child still had a pulse. “It was basically grab and go,” he said.
By the time the child arrived at Payson Regional Medical Center, paramedics had started CPR, he said.
Doctors pronounced the child dead at the hospital.
“We did everything we could,” Rasmussen said.
At a press conference, a reporter asked Engler how the officer who first took the baby is doing.
“That officer is doing very well,” Engler said. “Even though many of our young officers have children of their own, certainly it is difficult for officers in those circumstances ... He recognized that he did everything possible for that child to render aid as well.”
The mother and her children arrived at the man’s apartment just before noon.
Minutes after arriving, the children slipped into a bedroom unobserved by the mother or the 78-year-old man as they put a box of food together, Engler said.
The children located an unsecured semi-automatic handgun in the apartment and were “observing the weapon and the weapon discharged.” Engler explained.
The mother was reportedly just entering the bedroom where the children were when the gun went off, he said.
The man had other unsecured weapons in the home. Police are still investigating whether he had a legal right to possess them all or if he will face charges.
Police served a search warrant at the home Tuesday night and were there until 10 p.m., Engler said.
News of the shooting spread quickly across social media and sparked a firestorm of debate on gun control.
Currently, no federal laws address child access prevention and federal law does not require gun owners to safely store their guns, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Arizona is not one of the 14 states that have a law that imposes criminal liability for firearms negligently stored where minors could gain access. But someone could face general negligence charges.
Several on Facebook suggested gun control measures.
“So, anyone ready to rethink the gun issue?” one woman wrote on the Roundup’s Facebook page. “This isn’t a political issue, but one of rethinking today’s needs for guns in the home: loaded-semi-automatic handguns.”
Some supported the use of ‘smart guns,’ weapons that will only fire when held by an authorized user.
Most suggested that gun owners simply keep their weapons secure or locked up.
“Guns MUST be locked up or hidden somewhere that kids could never get to them. I feel so sad for this family,” one woman commented.
Of the hundreds of comments, nearly all agreed the event was tragic.
While some placed blame with the mother and 78-year-old man, others said no one was at fault.
“So sad and tragic, but an accident,” one woman wrote. “The 78 yr old has a right to have the gun to protect themselves.”
“(This) has nothing to do with gun control laws, I have guns and children and they stay locked up and out of reach,” one man wrote.
And others said it was not a time for judgment or discussion of gun laws, but to grieve.
“How about you leave politics out of the mess and show some basic human compassion for the loss?” another woman wrote.
Engler said the PPD encourages gun owners to secure their weapons.
“Our perspective is that any responsible gun owner needs to take responsibility for any weapons under their control and make sure they are not accessible to children,” he said.”
He said there are several ways to do that, whether using a gun safe, gun box, gunlock or keeping weapons in a secure area of the home that children cannot access.
“It is a very, very sad situation,” Rasmussen said.
Engler said the mother and 3-year-old are holding up as “best they can under the circumstances,” but were understandably “still very distraught.”
CHILDREN & GUNS
• Between 1999 and 2010, more than 8,300 people in the U.S. died from unintentional shootings, including 2,383 children younger than 21.
• On average, more than 16,000 individuals are treated each year in hospital emergency rooms for unintentional gunshot wounds.
• A 1991 study found that 8 percent of accidental shooting deaths resulted from shots fired by children under the age of 6.
• The majority of people killed in firearm accidents are under age 24, most of them shot by someone their age. The shooter is typically a friend or family member, often an older brother.
Sources: Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and New Yorkers Against Gun Violence