Charles Stanovich adored his little sister. When she was born, he picked her name: Jenn Alexandra. When she wore lip gloss to first grade, he was quick to register brotherly disapproval.
“They were so good together,” said their mother, Haydee Stanovich. “He took care of her.”
Last July 23, Charles and Jenn were three weeks into a month-long visit with their grandmother in Monroe County, 75 miles south of Atlanta. Charles had spent the day stalking armadillos with one of his grandmother’s guns. At home in Connecticut, firearms were forbidden. In rural Georgia, Charles could hunt and shoot, just as his father did when he was a boy.
Still, Charles, 13, wasn’t supposed to have the rifle in his bedroom, so it must have startled him when Jenn appeared in his doorway. Somehow, the gun fired. Jenn, wounded in the chest and hand, was pronounced dead less than an hour later at a Macon hospital.
She was 6 years old.
As Americans debate the proper balance between gun control and gun rights, most discussions of children and firearms center on the extremes: mass shootings like the one in a Connecticut elementary school, or the gang violence that pervades places like inner-city Chicago. But an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows that, in Georgia, most young victims of firearms die as Jenn did: one at a time, with little public outcry, and under circumstances that could have been prevented.
Georgia has some of the nation’s least restrictive gun laws, particularly to keep firearms away from children, the Journal-Constitution found. At the same time, it has a higher rate of firearms-related deaths among children age 17 or younger than all but 12 other states.
The correlation between gun laws and firearms deaths is a complex issue, often shaded as much by ideology as by fact. If a child can’t get a gun, he or she obviously won’t shoot anyone. But merely having access to a weapon doesn’t mean a child will use it. Regardless, the sheer number of deaths makes a compelling statement about the prominent role guns play in the state’s culture.
From 1999 to 2010, 602 children died from gunshot wounds in Georgia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: 50 every year, one every seven days.
Homicides accounted for more than twice as many deaths as suicides. The rest resulted from accidental shootings.
These patterns continue into 2013. The Journal-Constitution examined more than five dozen fatal shootings of Georgia children and teenagers since 2010, an incomplete list culled from news stories, police reports and other public records. Among the victims were toddlers who shot themselves while playing with their parents’ guns and gang members killed over drug deals. Seven children died in murder-suicides. Three were shot to death by the police.
Twenty-eight were killed by other children or teens, sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose. In 16 of those instances, the fatal shots came from guns left in homes or cars, loaded and unsecured.
Gun-rights advocates suggest that firearms training would do more than new laws to protect children. Some favor mandating gun safety courses in public schools.
“If you want kids to be safe, you need to teach them how to be safe” through hands-on experience with a firearm, said Jerry Henry, executive director of Georgia Carry, a gun-rights lobbying group. “They see what it does. They feel the kick and hear the bang. And all of a sudden, it’s not a game any more. They understand what this is for.”
Numerous studies, however, have shown an association between weak gun laws and more deaths, among both adults and children. In March, for example, researchers from Harvard University and Boston Children’s Hospital reported in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine that the lowest death rates are in states that restrict firearms trafficking, require extensive background checks of gun buyers, limit ownership of military-style assault weapons and prohibit firearms in most public places.
On the other hand, few states have tougher gun laws than Connecticut, where Jenn Stanovich lived in a small town near Hartford. It is 70 miles from Newtown, where all the state’s laws could do nothing to prevent the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Jenn Stanovich, her mother said, was a “girly girl.”
She loved purple and pink. She loved boots and horses. And she loved her brother.
Family photographs show Jenn and Charles posing together at Yankee Stadium; showing off their best clothes in a restaurant on Mother’s Day last year; rolling on the floor at home. In one picture, Jenn wears a pink tiara and a pink leotard with a ruffled pink skirt. It’s her 4th birthday. One hand holds a gift, a new doll. The other wraps around Charles’ neck, drawing his face close to hers.
Last July, for the third summer in a row, Charles and Jenn came to Georgia for an extended visit with their grandmother, Lynda. Their father, Richard, stayed with them while their mother, a mental health counselor, remained at work in Connecticut.
During earlier visits to Georgia, Charles had learned how to handle guns, Haydee Stanovich said. A native of Nicaragua, she was not accustomed to seeing guns used for sport. They made her uncomfortable. But Charles wanted to hunt and shoot, to have the same experiences his father did growing up in Georgia — to be, she said, “a regular Southern kid.”
“I never agreed with it,” she said. “But they’re boys.”
Charles’ parents differed over allowing him to shoot. But his father was adamant that if he used guns, he would do so safely. “He was not to take the rifle out without me knowing about it,” Richard Stanovich said.
On July 23, a Monday, Charles had used a Mossberg International 702 Plinkster, a .22-caliber semi-automatic rifle, to fire at the armadillos that had invaded his grandmother’s garden. Late that night, as his father and grandmother sat in the kitchen, Charles slipped the weapon into his room.
He would later say he thought he had unloaded the gun before laying it on his bed. Soon, Charles told sheriff’s deputies, Jenn came to the door of his room, and somehow the rifle ended up on the floor.
In the kitchen, Richard heard what sounded to him like a deafening clap.
“At first, it didn’t register,” he said recently. Then, from the back of the house, Charles screamed, “I have shot my sister!”
Bleeding from her hand, Jenn stumbled to her father. He scooped her up and held her in his lap at the kitchen table, tending to the injured hand. That’s when he noticed the other wound — a small, bloodless hole about four inches above her navel. The house filled with people trying to help: a volunteer firefighter and a paramedic who live nearby and sheriff’s deputies and, finally, an ambulance crew. Richard sensed almost immediately that they could not save his daughter.
“She was slipping away,” he said later. “She was gone.”
Jenn arrived at a hospital in Macon, 30 miles away, about 1 a.m. Her father waited outside the emergency room, alone, until doctors emerged, visibly upset. The bullet had nicked Jenn’s aorta, they told Richard. Nothing could have stopped her internal bleeding.
Richard asked to see the body. “I thought, ‘I have to tell my baby goodbye,’ ” he said later. “That’s the last thing — the last thing — I ever expected.”
Almost three weeks later, the sheriff’s department closed its investigation. No charges would be filed, either against Charles for the shooting or against the adults in the house for not securing the gun.
“It is quite apparent that this was a very unfortunate accident,” a sheriff’s investigator concluded, “and Charles, the victim’s brother, will most likely need extensive counseling.”
CHARGES ARE RARE
Five days after Jenn Stanovich died, 2-year-old Jeremiah McCrae was playing at home in Douglas, Ga., when he made a dangerous discovery: a shiny black handgun, stashed beneath a pillow in an upstairs bedroom.
It was late on a Sunday afternoon. Jeremiah’s mother, Alexis McCrae, was downstairs cooking dinner, a police report would later say. Jeremiah’s 6-year-old brother, Jabez, was playing in another room when he saw the toddler at the top of the stairs, holding the gun. Jabez reached to take it away. Jeremiah resisted.
When the first police officer arrived, several children were outside crying.
“Someone shot my brother,” one said.
Upstairs, the officer’s report said, Alexis McCrae was holding the youngest of her four children by the shoulders as blood pooled in the carpet beneath his head. Jeremiah was pronounced dead at the local hospital. Recent efforts to reach Alexis McCrae were unsuccessful.
At the house, on the upstairs floor, an officer found the weapon: a 9 mm Hi-Point C9 semi-automatic pistol. On a night stand in the bedroom where Jeremiah was playing, the officer saw a box of 50 bullets. Police determined the weapon belonged to a 24-year-old who lived in Jeremiah’s house but who was away at the time of the shooting.
Afterward, detectives considered filing charges against the gun’s owner, said Sgt. Robert Sprinkle, head of the Douglas Police Department’s criminal investigation unit. But after talking to social services workers, victims’ advocates and others, they decided to close the case “in the best interests of the family,” Sprinkle said.
In Georgia, it is illegal to “knowingly” or “recklessly” give a gun to a minor “for illegal purposes.” The law covers handguns, but not rifles or shotguns, and applies to parents only if they knew their child was likely to use a weapon to commit a crime. In addition, adults may be charged with reckless conduct if they allow minors to obtain guns they use to harm themselves or another person. But, according to Georgia Department of Corrections records, not a single person has served prison time for such an offense in at least 10 years.
Six states impose criminal penalties for an adult’s allowing a child to obtain a gun under any circumstance, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eight more states hold adults accountable if a child uses a gun in any way. Those 14 states also make it a crime to store loaded or unloaded firearms in a negligent manner. Massachusetts and the District of Columbia go a step further, requiring gun owners to store their weapons under lock and key.
Among the states with the toughest laws, only Illinois has a higher rate of death from firearms than Georgia.
In Georgia, law enforcement authorities have a great deal of discretion in prosecuting owners of guns that kill children. Unless they pulled the trigger themselves, the adults rarely face charges. In the deaths examined by the Journal-Constitution, authorities charged just four adults for providing the guns that killed three children.
For example, Clayton County police charged Robert Allen Bethune in 2011 after he gave his 15-year-old neighbor a .38-caliber revolver with which the boy killed a former girlfriend. The boy, Kevin Kosturi, had told Bethune he needed to protect himself from someone who threatened him at church.
A judge sentenced Kosturi to life in prison for killing Angel Freeman, 16. Bethune, who told authorities that giving Kosturi the gun was “stupid,” was sentenced to three years.
‘SO CLOSE TO HOME’
The morning of Dec. 14, Haydee Stanovich went to the mental health clinic where she works near her family’s home in Coventry, Conn. It had been 4 ½ months since Jenn died, but Stanovich remained in a haze. Jenn’s death seemed so far in the past, and yet remained so fresh in her memory.
“She was my life,” Stanovich would say later. “She was my only daughter. She was my everything.”
Stanovich paid little attention to a news bulletin on her computer that morning: shots fired at a school barely an hour away. Busy with clients, she didn’t learn more until lunchtime: a gunman had burst into Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown and killed 20 children and six adults before taking his own life.
“It was all so close to home,” Stanovich said recently. “They were all the same age as my daughter.”
For days afterward, she said, all she could do was watch the televised news coverage of the families in mourning, families so much like her own. Her husband and her sister could not stop weeping as they saw images of children so much like Jenn.
“Everybody,” Stanovich said, “was crying and sad.”
The deaths in Newtown made clear to Haydee Stanovich that she and her family will never get over what happened to Jenn. Her husband, she said, is depressed and suffers from post-traumatic stress. The family is in counseling together, and Charles sees another therapist on his own. He is angry, his mother said. “He feels like people are judging him all the time.”
Richard Stanovich isn’t quite sure how to regard his son. He described the shooting as “a tragic mistake,” but said he cannot imagine why Charles acted so carelessly.
“If I hold it against my son, then I’ve lost both children,” Stanovich said. “I can’t do that.”
But he also said: “I laid down the law with him. I went over every rule. … There was no neglect. There was no parental irresponsibility — none of that. It was just a child who was trying to be more than he was. He related so much to the Southern way of life.”
As the public debate over guns and children drags on, Haydee and Richard Stanovich find themselves conflicted. She said she appreciates the liberties guaranteed in the United States, including the right to own guns. In Jenn’s case, she doesn’t think criminal charges would have served any purpose; as it is, she said, the family is “devastated.”
“But I don’t think a person should have a gun lying around,” Haydee said. “It should be locked away with a freaking key.”
Richard is a lifelong gun owner who could never support a ban on firearms. His father, who was in the military, taught him to take apart and reassemble guns, and he grew up loving to hunt and shoot. He still has one gun at home, now protected with two locks. But since Jenn’s death, he said, he doesn’t care to fire it again.
“I’m not against firearms,” he said. “I personally don’t feel like dealing with the results of what I saw.”
Charles, though, betrays no reservations, his parents said.
He still wants to visit his grandmother in Georgia. He still wants to shoot her guns.