Five summers ago, a 13-year-old boy accidentally shot and killed his 12-year-old sister as they sat in the backseat of their mother's SUV in a Memphis parking lot.
Their mother, who was not in the car, left a loaded gun on her car's center console. She was charged with criminally negligent homicide and aggravated child neglect.
Two months later, a 10-year-old boy accidentally shot and killed his 9-year-old sister as they sat in the back of their family's car in a parking lot in the tiny East Tennessee town of LaFollette.
Their father, who was not in the car, kept a loaded gun in the car's center console. He was not charged.
A decade of child gun deaths
Since 2013, the Gun Violence Archive and the National Gun Violence Memorial have recorded 130 of Tennessee's more than 600 child gun deaths.
Our three-part series will highlight all 130. Each vignette tells the larger story of a child lost, a family devastated, a community in fear or mourning or both.
Jan. 12, 2022
Charvez Akins, age 2, who loved superheroes, was accidentally shot and killed by a 5-year-old child who found an adult's loaded handgun on a nightstand. A 22-year-old female who lived in the house was arrested and charged with reckless homicide and tampering with evidence. In 2020, the woman pleaded guilty to a reckless endangerment charge after she fired several shots at a Taco Bell.
Jan. 28, 2022
Riley Pitts, age 6, and MaKayla Kleinert, age 13, were shot and killed by their 32-year-old father, who also shot and killed their mother and then himself. “We hear gunshots a lot,” a neighbor told reporters. “Probably every other day. It’s like boom, boom, boom. And it’s dark out, so it’s like, ‘What are you shooting at?’”
March 10, 2022
A 3-year-old child was accidentally shot and killed when his father accidentally dropped a shotgun and it discharged, police said. Their names were not released. No charges were filed.
March 14, 2022
A 3-year-old boy accidentally shot and killed himself with a loaded gun he found in his home. The child's name was not released. No charges were filed.
In 2021, gunfire became the leading cause of death for children 17 and under in Tennessee.
Child gun deaths aren't just a Tennessee problem.
In 2020, for the first time, more American children ages 17 and under were killed by guns than by car accidents or any other cause of death, according to CDC data. That was true again in 2021 and 2022, and likely will be again in 2023.
Tennessee's rate of child gun deaths is 36 percent higher than the national average.
Many states require adult gun owners to securely store firearms to prevent access by children. In those states, rates of accidental child gun deaths have been reduced dramatically.
Tennessee doesn't have such a law and state legislators have rejected several efforts to pass one. Tennessee is among the states with the highest rates of unintentional shootings by children.
Firearms are the leading cause of death for children 17 and younger in the United States and in Tennessee.
Tennessee's rate of child gun deaths is 36 percent higher than the national average.
Most child gun deaths are homicides and suicides, but hundreds of children are shot and killed unintentionally every year.
Nearly all of those shootings are considered preventable.
The gun death occurred because a child had easy access to a loaded firearm.
In Tennessee, 150 children under age 18 have been shot unintentionally since 2015 -- or about two every month.
Sixty-four have died.
So far this year, 16 Tennessee children have been shot unintentionally. Only Texas, Indiana and Ohio have had more.
Five Tennessee children have died as a result of unintentional shootings this year.
March 23, 2022
Coltyn Lee Gridley, age 2, accidentally shot and killed himself with a loaded handgun he found in his home. The child's 28-year-old mother and her 25-year-old boyfriend were charged with child neglect and reckless homicide. “If you’re a gun owner, you’ve got to be responsible. You’ve got to put your weapons in a safe place," Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Coffey told reporters. "We're not using good judgment if a 2-year-old can get in possession of a handgun and it discharges.”
March 27, 2022
Bryson Jackson, age 3, accidentally shot and killed himself with a semiautomtic pistol that had been converted illegally to fully automatic. Police found another converted automatic pistol and a 9mm handgun at the home. The child's mother and an adult male friend were arrested and charged with criminally negligent homicide. “How many more children are going to have to die from gunshot wounds before adults who have guns in the home act like adults and store them safely,” Dist. Atty. Gen. Amy Weirich told reporters.
June 22, 2022
Jerry 'Tre' Anderson III, age 4, who loved Spiderman, accidentally shot and killed himself with a loaded handgun he found in his father's family home. His mother was on her way to pick him up when the shooting occurred. Police said Tre's father was out on bond at the time, facing 15 counts of attempted first-degree murder for firing 130 rounds of ammunition at a house in Memphis in 2020. Three people in the house were wounded, including a 2-year-old child. “The system can’t get it right. The system cannot protect our children. They are going to have to put the guns up and be held accountable,” Tre's maternal grandmother told reporters.
Aug. 12, 2022
A 16-year-old boy was shot and killed by gunshots fired into his home during a drive-by shooting. No charges have been filed.
Aug. 15, 2022
LaVonte'e Roy Anthony Williams, age 5, who had just been baptized the day before, accidentally shot and killed himself with a loaded handgun he found inside his father's backpack at a basketball court at a park. “He’s a superhero kid,” the boy's grandmother told reporters. “He was kind of like the superhero to our family because he wanted to be the little protector.”
Sept. 22, 2022
Amilcar Martinez, age 17, was shot and killed on a street. Police didn't release details. No one has been arrested or charged with the killing.
Oct. 13, 2022
Mandia Shanbanka, age 10, and her 43-year-old grandmother were shot and killed by her mother's 21-year-old boyfriend. He was charged with two counts of second-degree murder.
Oct. 24, 2022
A 3-year-old boy accidentally shot and killed himself with a loaded handgun he found at his home. The child's father was charged with criminally negligent homicide.
Gov. Bill Lee has called a special session of the legislature to begin Aug. 21 in response to gun violence in Tennessee.
But so far, any gun-related legislation has been deemed outside the governor's narrowly defined scope of the session.
Lee is asking legislators to consider 18 topics to "enhance public safety" and "likewise protect Constitutional rights."
Only one topic mentions child access to firearms. It suggests "measures encouraging the safe storage of firearms," but it specifically precludes "creation of penalties for failing to safely store firearms."
Memphis police take a report June of 2023 after two vehicles had their windows broken out on a weekend where hundreds of vehicles were hit in Memphis, Tennessee. It is believed suspects were looking for guns. (Karen Pulfer Focht for The Institute for Public Service Reporting)
Lee's proposal "eliminates taxes on firearm safes and safety devices, provides free gun locks, expands safe storage training in state-approved safety courses, and creates a public service announcement to promote safe storage."
The governor's proposals do not include a "safe storage law," which mandates how firearms should be stored, nor a "child access prevention" (CAP) law, that imposes
consequences if a child gains access to an unsecured gun.
Roughly a third of U.S. homes with children have guns.
An estimated 4.6 million children live in homes with access to an unlocked or unsupervised gun.
A 2021 study found that 75 percent of children who live in homes with guns know where they are stored.
Access to guns in the home increases the risk of a child's suicide by 300 percent.
The risk of a child's homicide is three times higher when there is a gun in the home.
The risk of a child's unintentional shooting is four times higher when there is a gun in the home.
More than seven in 10 unintentional child shootings occur in or around the child's home or family car.
When children unintentionally shoot another person, the victim is most often a sibling or a friend.
Unintentional shootings occur most frequently at times when children are likely to be home: over the weekend and in the summer.
Homicides account for about 60 percent of child gun deaths, suicides about 32 percent, and unintentional or accidental shootings about 5 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Actual numbers may vary.
Studies have shown that as many as a third of unintentional child gun deaths were wrongly classified as homicides at local or state levels. Often, that's because the shooter, thinking the gun was unloaded, intentionally pulled the trigger.
There is no central database that tracks how many children gain access to loaded guns and harm themselves or others.
But a recent national analysis of more than 2,800 such shootings from 2015-2022 found:
Nearly one child under age 18 gains access to a loaded firearm and unintentionally shoots themself or someone else every day in America -- an average of 350 children every year.
Nov. 4, 2022
Karlie Wright, age 1, was shot and killed by a stray bullet fired by a 19-year-old woman who had gotten into a fight with the child's mother. Karlie was sitting in a car seat in her mother's car. Two other children in the car were unharmed, including Karlie's twin brother. The shooter was charged with first-degree murder and four counts of attempted murder. “This was not supposed to happen. This is so sad. Oh Lord, Jesus,” the shooter's mother told reporters.
Dec. 12, 2022
Germany Hines, age 16, a student at Austin-East High School, was shot and killed. Hines had been expected to testify in the 2021 shooting death of a classmate, Stanley Freeman. Germany was the seventh Austin-East student to die of gun violence since the beginning of 2021. No charges have been filed in Germany's death.
Dec. 29, 2022
A 3-year-old accidentally shot and killed himself with a handgun he found in his home. No other details were released. No one has been charged.
Jan. 19, 2023
Jesse Lepore, age 9, and his brother Sean Lepore, age 11, were shot and killed by their father, who had shot and killed their mother in their home in Alabama. The Alabama man shot and killed himself.
Jan. 29, 2023
Four children, ages 5-15, were shot and killed in their home by a 52-year-old man, who then shot and killed himself with the same .45-cal. handgun he purchased in 2013. The assailant was the father of Briseis Aljumaily, 15, and Gabriella Aljumaily, 5, and the grandfather of Audrie and Evie Cooper-Fortner, ages 9 and 5. The man's wife told authorities that her husband "for the last few months he had been saying that there was a devil in his head attacking him and that he wanted to harm himself, but was afraid to because of how that would affect his salvation."
Feb. 1, 2023
A 5-year-old child was shot and killed at his home in Parkway Village. No other details were released. No one has been charged.
Feb. 14, 2023
Alayna June Butts, age 2, was shot and killed during a conflict between her mother and several armed men at her home. The alleged killer was shot and killed by someone in the house. Three of his brothers were charged with first-degree murder.
Feb. 26, 2023
A 4-year-old child accidentally shot and killed himself with a gun found in the child's home. No other details were released. No one was charged.
From 2015-2022 across the country, there were at least 2,802 unintentional shootings by children under age 18 resulting in 1,083 people killed and 1,815 people wounded.
Nearly all victims (92 percent) were also children under 18.
Dr. Regan Williams in surgery at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in 2019. “Kids deserve to grow up healthy, safe and well. We need to come together as a community to protect them. Common sense measures like safe gun storage will put their safety first. It is all about keeping our kids safe,” she said. (Karen Pulfer Focht for The Institute for Public Service Reporting)
Children ages 14-17 were most likely to be the shooters. But children five years and younger were most likely to be the victims.
Nearly one in every three unintentional shooters were preschoolers.
In 2021, a record 148 children ages five and under unintentionally shot themselves or someone else.
From 2015-2022, at least 895 preschoolers and toddlers ages five and under found a gun and unintentionally shot themselves or someone else.
In those incidents, at least 933 children under five were shot and wounded or killed.
During those years, the number of shootings by children five and under increased 33 percent. Shootings among those ages 14-17 decreased 28 percent.
Handguns were used in 93 percent of the unintentional shootings by children five and under, and in 80 percent of shootings by children ages 14-17.
Rifles and shotguns accounted for about 6 percent of the incidents overall, and assault-style weapons made up about 1 percent.
There is no federal law requiring secure storage by gun owners.
Federal law requires gun dealers to provide a secure gun storage or gun safety device with the sale of every handgun. It does not require that gun owners actually use the device.
Some states, however, have enacted a variety of "safe storage" laws that mandate how guns should be stored to secure them from minors.
Studies show that households that lock firearms and ammunition experience 85 percent fewer unintentional injuries.
Among states with the highest rates of unintentional shootings by children, Tennessee was third. Only Louisiana and Mississippi had higher rates.
States with the strongest laws related to preventing firearm access by children have the lowest rates of child shootings.
States with the highest rates do not have such a law or have a secure storage law that only applies in extremely limited circumstances.
Massachusetts and Oregon require gun owners to secure their firearms whenever they are not in their immediate possession or control.
Rates of unintentional shootings by minors were 78 percent lower in these states.
Tennessee does not have such a law.
Six states require gun owners to secure their firearms if a child is likely to access an unsecured gun.
Rates of unintentional shootings by minors were 39 percent lower in these states.
Tennessee does not have such a law.
Fifteen states hold gun owners liable only if a child does access an unsecured gun.
Rates of unintentional shootings by minors were 34 percent lower in these states.
Tennessee does not have such a law.
March 27, 2023
Three 9-year-old children, Evelyn Dieckhaus, William Kinney and Hallie Scruggs, all third graders, were shot and killed at Covenant School, a private Christian school. Three adults, school custodian Mike Hill, 61, substitute teacher Cynthia Peak, 61, and Katherine Koonce, 60, head of the school, also were shot and killed. The assailant, a 28-year-old woman who was killed by police, fired 152 rounds of ammunition with a military-style semiautomatic rifle, a handgun. and a small 9-mm — a weapon with a rifle-length barrel and a folding stock so that it can be more easily carried or concealed. A bullet fired by an assault-style weapon “is fatal almost no matter where it strikes a child,” Dr. Joseph Fusco, a surgeon at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital, told reporters. The assailant, who police said was under care for an emotional disorder, had legally purchased seven firearms from five local gun stores and hidden them at home, police said.
May 14, 2023
Maaliyah Williamson, age 9, was accidentally shot and killed by her 7-year-old brother with a handgun he found in the glove box of a car owned by a family friend. The man was charged with criminally negligent homicide.
May 30, 2023
Taliyah Frazier, age 4, was shot and killed in the back seat of a car stopped at a red light. Two-year-old male twins were also riding in the back seat. One was injured and both survived. The car was being driven by Taliyah's mother's boyfriend. Four males ages 18-23 were arrested and charged with criminal homicide. Police said the shooters thought they were firing at someone else.
June 3, 2023
A 3-year-old child accidentally shot and killed himself with a gun he found in his family's car. No other details were released. No charges have been filed.
Tennessee is one of 10 states that hold gun owners accountable only for intentionally and recklessly providing a firearm to a child.
But states with such laws had similar rates of unintentional shootings by children as those without any laws.
Laws that punish only intentional or reckless provision of firearms to minors are not effective in protecting children; they should not be considered secure storage laws
2023 report by Everytown for Gun Safety
Seventeen states have no child-access related laws at all.
Tennessee has no law that requires unattended firearms to be stored in a certain way.
Tennessee also does not require a locking device to accompany the sale of a firearm.
Tennessee has no law that imposes a penalty on someone who fails to secure an unattended firearm and leaves it accessible to an unsupervised minor.
If a child gains access to a gun and injures or kills someone with it, a district attorney can charge the adult gun owner with criminally negligent homicide or aggravated child neglect.
"Because it is such a gray area, and because there are such differing views on gun access in this state, there's little consistency in how these cases are prosecuted, if at all," said Beth Joslin Roth, founder of the Safe Tennessee Project.
June 15, 2023
Nicole Perez, age 11, Lilyana Perez, age 6, and Nicholas Perez, age 2, were shot and killed in their home by their estranged father, who also shot and killed their mother and another adult. The assailant then shot and killed himself. Sheriff Bo Burnett said the assailant ignored a restraining order against him. “He had been to court and the judge had ordered him to leave the house until it is settled," the sheriff told reporters. "You can take people to court and have orders of protection and stuff, but it is not going to stop the violence. Just be prepared it could turn violent at any time.”
June 20, 2023
Zoriana Walker, age 3, was shot and killed outside the apartment complex where she lived. Witnesses said the shooting was the result of a fight and the family knows the suspect. “For a person to just to shoot into a crowd with kids, it just tore my family apart," Camilla Brown, Zoriana's grandmother, told TV reporters. "Once you make that decision to pull the trigger, there is no turning back in the end. Kids are dying every day by guns. Like, they need to change the gun laws or something because everybody is, aint capable of holding a gun. Everybody shouldn’t have a gun. These kids, like, the babies are suffering."
June 29, 2023
A 12-year-old girl accidentally shot and killed herself at someone else's home. A 15-year-old boy brought a loaded handgun into the home. He was charged with unlawful gun possession and evidence tampering.
July 30, 2023
Lathan Sweatt, age 10, was accidentally shot and killed by his 14-year-old brother in their home. They were playing with a loaded gun they found at the top of a closet, police said. The parents were not home at the time of the shooting.
Tennessee law does prohibit a parent or guardian from intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly providing a handgun to a minor or permitting a juvenile to possess a handgun.
But the law only applies if the parent or guardian knows of a substantial risk that such a minor will use the handgun to commit a felony.
The lights on the old Harahan Bridge (now called Big River Crossing) in downtown Memphis glowed red, white and black in 2020 in remembrance of the 293 homicide victims that year. More than thirty were children. (Karen Pulfer Focht for The Institute for Public Service Reporting)
Otherwise, Tennessee does not impose criminal liability on adults who allow children access to firearms.
There is no language in the statue pertaining to rifles or shotguns.
Three states require new handgun models to have childproofing features such as loaded chamber indicators and magazine safety disconnects.
Tennessee does not have such a law.
Some states require the safe storage of ammunition in the home.
Tennessee does not have such a law.
In 2018, the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery recommended that states adopt strong or stronger child access prevention laws.
"Strong child access prevention laws were associated with a significant reduction in all self-inflicted and unintentional pediatric firearm injuries," the journal reported.
"Weak child access prevention laws, which only impose liability for reckless endangerment, were associated with an increased risk of all pediatric firearm injuries.
"Implementation of strong child access prevention laws by each state, which require safe storage of firearms, has the potential to significantly reduce pediatric firearm injuries."
The age requirement in Tennessee to purchase a handgun is 21, while the minimum age to possess a handgun is 18.
The minimum age to purchase a shotgun or rifle, such as an AR-15, is 18 under federal law.
In Tennessee, there is no minimum age to possess a shotgun or rifle.
Information about each child's death was gathered from the Gun Violence Archive and various media reports.
In 2020, for the first time, more American children ages 17 and under were killed by guns than by car accidents or any other cause of death.
That was true again in 2021 and 2022, and likely will be again in 2023, according to CDC data.
Each day 12 children die from gun violence in America. Another 32 are shot and injured.
Children living in poverty – urban and rural – are more likely to die due to gun violence than their more affluent peers.
Black youth are four times more likely to be killed with guns than their white peers.
No one knows exactly how many American children are killed by firearms each year.
There is no single, current, reliable source of information on child gun deaths, in Tennessee or anywhere.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the FBI collect and report gun deaths nationally and state by state, but that information is based on spotty local and state records and are published a year or two behind.
County health departments and local law enforcement offices compile records on all deaths, including murders and suicides, but the release of such information is limited and governed by laws designed to protect family privacy as well as to prevent any sort of gun control advocacy.
Thirty years ago, researchers at the University of Tennessee found that keeping a gun in the home was strongly associated with an increased risk of homicide by an intimate acquaintance or family member.
After the study was published by the New England Journal of Medicine, the National Rifle Association lobbied Congress to eliminate the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, which funded the UT study.
Congress didn't do that. But in 1996, Congress passed "the Dickey amendment" that stated that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” The prohibition included the National Institutes for Health (NIH) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
In 2014, a retired computer analyst and gun owner in Kentucky began tracking and reporting child gun deaths in America.
Mark Bryant created the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit organization that scrapes the internet to collect information from 7,500 law enforcement, media, government and commercial sources every day.
No other government or nonprofit agency does that. But the Archive reports only a fraction of the actual child gun deaths in America.
The Gun Violence Archive excludes most child suicides, which are rarely publicly reported and can account for 30-40 percent of all child gun deaths.
And the Archive relies primarily on gun deaths reported by local media, which does not report every child gun death.
In 2020, the Archive recorded 14 child gun deaths in Tennessee. The CDC reported 70 child gun deaths here that year.
In 2021, the Archive recorded 20 child gun deaths in Tennessee. The CDC reported 86 child gun deaths here that year. The state reported 85.
Since 2014, the Archive has recorded 130 child gun deaths in Tennessee. The CDC reported 540 child gun deaths in Tennessee from 2014-2021.
The CDC won't report 2022 numbers until later this year, but the Archive recorded 17 that year.